Hot off of signing an expensive and unfair $400 million tax cut for Mainers in June, Maine Governor Paul LePage is now promoting a new regressive tax break targeted to older adults.
He would like for state lawmakers to fully exempt all pension income from the state income tax, a move he thinks will help fixed-income older adults and bring wealthy retirees to the state. While most states with broad-based personal income taxes, including Maine, allow some sort of pension income exclusion, only Illinois, Mississippi and Pennsylvania fully exempt it from taxation.
Maine currently allows retirees to deduct a maximum of $6,000 per spouse of their pension income less Social Security benefits received. In other words, older Mainers with annual Social Security income over $6,000 ($12,000 if married) do not currently benefit from the pension deduction.
LePage’s proposal is a poorly-targeted and unnecessarily expensive tax break that will make Maine’s tax system less sustainable and less fair.
As a newly released ITEP brief points out, state income tax breaks for older adults, especially those that exempt all pension income, typically reserve the lion’s share of their benefits for better-off elderly taxpayers. Such poorly targeted tax breaks shift the cost of funding public services towards non-elderly taxpayers, many of whom are less well-off than the seniors benefiting from the tax breaks.
Also, long-term demographic changes threaten to make such a pension income tax break unaffordable in the long run. Older adults are the fastest growing age demographic in the country. According to the US Census, between 2000 and 2010, the US population of adults 55 and older grew by more than 30 percent while the population of those under 55 grew only by 4 percent. This change was even starker in Maine where the 55 and older population grew by 32 percent while the population under 55 actually shrank by 4.5 percent. Over time, this demographic shift will mean that a shrinking pool of workers will be forced to fund tax breaks for an expanding pool of retirees — heightening the need to target these tax breaks appropriately in order to minimize their cost.
Maine Revenue Services has estimated that this special tax break for older adults would cost the state $93 million. Given that Maine is still climbing out of a budget hole ripped by the ongoing recession, services would have to be cut or other taxes would have to be increased to pay for LePage’s proposal.
Maine lawmakers would be wise to reject LePage’s proposal and should either stick to their current pension income deduction or consider a break which is better targeted to the state’s neediest older adults.
Photos via Maine Public Broadcasting Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0