Visiting Athletes Feel the Bite of State And Local Taxes

WHOEVER wins the World Series, Philadelphia will come out on top in postseason play. Not the baseball team: the city.

Of the four cities whose teams entered the league-championship playoffs last week - Chicago, Toronto, Atlanta, and Philadelphia - only the last one taxes visiting athletes on income they earn there. The City of Brotherly Love's tax man keeps 4.3 percent of the money earned by professional jocks while they are in town, whether they come to play the Phillies, the football Eagles, the basketball '76ers, or the hockey Flyers. Given the multimillion-dollar salaries earned by many athletes today, the tax brings in a fair hunk of change, even though it's levied pro rata on just a small part of a player's total salary.

Pennsylvania gets into the act, too. The state charges a ``nonresidents tax'' of 2.8 percent on pro athletes who stop over in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh to play the locals.

Example: The average big-league baseball player earned $1,028,667 in 1992. An Atlanta Braves player making the average salary will pay Philadelphia $1,643 and Pennsylvania $1,067 for six regular-season games in 1993, plus an additional amount for the bonus he made in the playoffs. The taxes are withheld from players' paychecks.

None of the other cities in the baseball playoffs tax visiting players. But Illinois takes a bite from pros on teams from states that tax Illinois players. This ``Michael Jordan tax'' was passed in retaliation for the tax levied by California on Chicago Bulls players in 1991.

Last year the Georgia legislature enacted a nonresidents tax that would have hit players visiting Atlanta, but Gov. Zell Miller vetoed it. A number of states have such taxes; Canada and its provinces do not.

Besides Philadelphia, cities that tax visiting athletes include Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York.

These so-called ``source'' taxes don't apply only to professional athletes. Their biggest application is to commuters who work in a state or city but live outside it. The taxes also apply to visiting entertainers, speakers, consultants, and others.

``When Governor [William] Weld took in the Grateful Dead concert, I'm sure a tax-enforcement unit went with him,'' says Frederick Herberich, general counsel of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, referring to a recent rock concert.

Of course, collecting what some call the ``athletes and aesthetes'' tax from the Dead or Dan Marino is relatively easy. The tricky part is catching up with less visible performers who do a one-night gig and then high-tail it out of the state.

In New York state, tax-department employees track visiting performers through music-industry trade publications and college newspapers, and they read gossip columns to find out where movies are being made in the state, says Karl Felsen, a department spokesman.

Source taxes generally don't cost ballplayers and others additional money, since taxes paid on out-of-state income are credited against the income taxes they pay at home.

The Federation of Tax Administrators in Washington is trying to standardize the rules for visiting athletes and simplify compliance. Model rules drafted by an FTA task force have been circulated to the four major professional sports for discussion with team owners and players associations. In time, the rules will be submitted to the states for enactment.

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