There’s a lot of talk in the halls of Congress about reforming the federal tax code, but few people think about how that might impact state and local governments and their ability to raise enough revenue to fund the services their residents use on a daily basis.
As the tax-writing committee in the House of Representatives examined this issue on Tuesday, CTJ’s partner organization ITEP submitted written testimony to clear up some little-understood points.
The federal tax system accommodates the taxing authority of state and local governments in a few different ways, which could be altered for better or worse, depending on what Congress does.
The Deductions for State and Local Taxes
For example, the federal personal income tax allows a deduction for taxes one pays to state and local governments. ITEP’s testimony points out that in many ways this is one of the most justified of the federal tax deductions and therefore should not be eliminated. Most deductions are for spending that the taxpayer has control of — like home mortgage interest or charitable giving — but this is not true of state and local taxes. It makes more sense to think of state and local taxes as reducing the amount of income a taxpayer has to pay federal taxes.
Perhaps more importantly, eliminating the deduction would make state and local governments more hesitant to tax the incomes of wealthy residents (who know that the deduction offsets part of those taxes). This tax revenue is badly needed as the U.S. has underinvested in infrastructure, education and other goods that are largely funded with state and local taxes.
State and Local Bonds
Another accommodation made by the federal tax system is its exclusion of state and local bond interest from taxable income. State and local governments can borrow at lower interest rates, because the interest payments they make are not taxable for the bondholders (who are thus willing to accept lower rates than are paid on ordinary bonds).
But, as ITEP’s testimony explains, the current tax subsidy is inefficient because some of the revenue given up by the federal government falls into the hands of very high-income bond-holders rather than the state and local governments that the exclusion is ostensibly supposed to help.
The Obama administration has a proposal that would remedy this by reviving Build America Bonds. These bonds were available for two years under the economic recovery act Obama signed into law in 2009, and are designed differently so that they support state and local government projects without creating a windfall for the wealthy.
Marketplace Fairness Act
Congress has additional opportunities to accommodate state and local governments’ taxing authority. For example, we have written recently that anyone who lives in a state with a sales tax and purchases something online owes sales tax on that purchase. But states and local governments are not allowed to require remote sellers to collect these sales taxes, which they can and do require of retailers who are physically present in the state. The Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA) is a bill in Congress that would fix this.
The MFA is a common sense bill. It would not even increase taxes but only facilitate the collection of the sales taxes that people already owe but usually fail to pay.