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A State-Based Federal Tax System?


Dan Barrett
April 14, 2014

If you’re following HBO’s Game of Thrones, winter’s always coming. The problem for taxpayers is that our winter comes every year in mid-April and it’s increasingly becoming a game with only losers. Around this time of year, I hear from citizens and even policy experts not only complaining about their tax burden but wondering why the system itself is in such dire straits. There are many reasons (NTUF recently laid out some of the problems and solutions in The Taxpayer’s Tab -- seriously, if you’re not subscribed to the Tab, you’re missing out) but some Americans see no hope for our graduated progressive-income tax system and are looking to completely replace it.

One such reform was pointed out to me by Tom, whom I met at NTU and Foundation’s CPAC 2014 booth. His idea is to streamline America’s tax system in a way similar to what the Founding Fathers originally created. I later found a short description of what Tom calls the Neutral Tax on his website:

[The Neutral Tax] eliminates all federal taxes on citizens and businesses (including federal income, payroll, personal income, unemployment, corporate, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, self-employment, gasoline, etc.) and replaces them with a singular flat tax on the gross revenue of each state government (including all local taxes & fees.)

In short, the new system would transfer the requirement of collecting federal revenues from individuals, households, businesses, and corporations to state governments. State governments tend to be more efficient in costs and accountability when collecting taxes because they are made up of much smaller jurisdictions than the entire country. Dealing with a smaller pool of people means lower operating and enforcement costs. Though there are still horror stories coming out of state Departments of Revenue, taxpayers are better able to walk down the street or travel to their state capitol to dispute their tax burden compared to traveling all the way to Washington, D.C. and/or dealing with examiners of a large and oftentimes cumbersome agency, such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The new system would take the responsibility of collecting taxes away from the federal government, leaving the states to decide the methods and parameters to tax citizens. Bringing the notion that states are laboratories for democracy into play, governments could choose to merely expand existing systems or choose to reform to collect the necessary funds. The goal is to allow states to have the freedom to reform their systems without having to also conform to the federal income tax-based framework. For example, today, taxpayers in Florida (and six other states) don’t pay state income taxes (and generally pay higher sales or use taxes) but still must pay federal income taxes. This system makes having a comparatively more efficient sales tax system less advantageous because people are a part of two systems. Having a Neutral Tax system might increase efficiencies by decreasing compliance costs for households and businesses. Of course, the tax system that states would adopt is all dependent on the Governor and state legislators.

With the basic concept out of the way, let’s delve down into what a Neutral Tax system might look like, how it would affect taxpayers, and how it might change the federal budget.

Calculating the Neutral Tax: As it appears in Tom’s document, the Neutral Tax would be revenue-neutral, meaning that the system would collect the same amount of revenue as before the fundamental reform. At the federal level, tax rates would be set at zero. Each state would calculate the state, local, and federal tax makeup of its citizens to determine how much it would need to increase its own collections to offset the federal income tax repeal.

For 2014, total projected federal revenue ($3.0 trillion) is divided by total tax revenue ($5.7 trillion – federal, state, and local total) to reveal that 52.6 percent of taxes paid go to the federal government. To be compliant in the new system, state revenue departments would need to increase average collections by 52.6 percent, which would not change the taxpayer’s tax burden (just the method of collection). It would be up to the Department of the Treasury and Congress to determine what percentage of the tax mix would go to federal accounts.

The Neutral Tax & Taxpayers: At least initially, taxpayers would likely not see a change in their tax burden. States would have the freedom to decide how to collect revenues and how much to collect, which would also leave it to state officials to decide who collects taxes. For example, it’s possible that one state could adopt a more progressive income tax while its neighbor could have a Fair Tax system.

The policy document also notes that “it cannot be argued The Neutral Tax inherently falls more heavily on one group or another. It will be up the states to determine how they modify their existing tax/fee structures to collect the additional federal tax… .”

A Different Federal Budget: Even with the same amount of revenue coming in, the Neutral Tax would not necessarily lead to similar spending levels. Enacting the new system would mean refundable tax credits would no longer be in effect. These credits are payments given to households in excess of their tax liability and are counted by both the Congressional Budget Office and NTUF’s BillTally project as spending, not revenues. Without these credits, federal spending would be reduced by $86.4 billion if the Neutral Tax was enacted this year. This line of reasoning is also found in our scores of the flat tax and Fair Tax proposals.

I took a similar view of the Neutral Tax as with the Fair Tax with respect to the IRS. With the elimination of most of the Tax Code, the IRS would be significantly downsized. The agency is approved to spend $12.1 billion this year, which would be counted as savings if the Neutral Tax is passed and the IRS is eliminated. BUT, a couple of further details: The IRS would need a multi-year wind-down to finalize remaining tax cases and to transfer data and authority to a smaller entity, comparable to the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. They spend $96 million last year (page 1070 of the Budget Appendix) on operations and so I would credit that figure against the total IRS deauthorization.

Changes to FY 2014-2018 Federal Spending Under a Neutral Tax System
(in millions of dollars)

 
FY 2014
FY 2015
FY 2016
FY 2017
FY 2018
Total
Repeal Refundable Tax Credits
-$86,743
 
 
 
 
-$86,743
IRS Wind-Down
 
 
 
 
-$12,106
-$12,106
Tax and Trade Bureau
$96
$96
$96
$96
$96
$480
Total
-$86,647
$96
$96
$96
-$12,010
-$98,369

Note: NTUF's BillTally system only tracks changes in budget outlays.

Much like other fundamental tax reform measures, this proposal also has a slim chance of passing a divided and pro-establishment Congress. In this proposed system, as with other reforms, the decision making power of how much to tax Americans rests with Congress and the Treasury Department. This then relies on individuals, local taxpayer associations, and national organizations to push for changes in the overall rate. It is difficult to tell if taxpayers would organize to keep rates low or if we could face a situation similar to today where rates are often times arbitrarily increased. However, it is good to keep the ideas coming for taxpayers to consider how best to fund the government in challenging economic times. Thanks to Tom for stopping by our CPAC booth and helping me add another alternative to the growing list of reforms!

Have an opinion of the Neutral Tax or another tax reform? Let us know in the comments.


 

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