Debates Heating Up Over Broadening the Income Tax Base to Include Retirement Income


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We've written before that state governments provide a wide array of tax breaks for their elderly residents. Almost every state levying an income tax now allows some form of exemption or credit for its over-65 citizens that is unavailable to non-elderly taxpayers. But many states have enacted poorly-targeted, unnecessarily expensive elderly tax breaks that make state tax systems less sustainable and less fair. These breaks are being reconsidered in Illinois, Michigan, and Hawaii.

One of the most egregious examples of the special treatment retirees receive is the Illinois income tax exemption for all retirement income. But this exemption is getting more and more attention. Senate President John Cullerton recently said, “It would just be a matter of fairness” to tax this income.

The Chicago Tribune joins us in applauding Cullerton for raising this issue. “Illinois needs a talk about revising tax policies and rethinking exemptions," the Tribune editorializes. "Not to grab more from taxpayers, but to broaden the tax base as a matter of fairness. Why should the working family making $50,000 a year pay a tax that the retiree getting $100,000 a year avoids? Credit Cullerton for thinking creatively — and out loud. ”

Eliminating senior tax preferences is also receiving attention in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder has proposed scrapping the state’s generous exemptions for pensions, annuities, and various other types of retirement income.  Unfortunately, Snyder has paired this change with an elimination of the state’s EITC — a proposal that has contributed greatly to the overall regressivity of Snyder’s personal income tax changes.  Retaining the EITC and means-testing Michigan’s pension breaks, rather than eliminating them entirely, could greatly reduce the regressivity of Snyder’s plan. 
 
Finally, in Hawaii, a proposal to tax pensions earned by taxpayers with incomes over $100,000 (or $200,000 for married filers) recently passed the House.  Unlike in Michigan, this plan both includes protections for low-income retirees, and uses the revenue it would generate in order to close the state’s budget gap.

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