Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


FILE- In this June 27, 2013 file photo, advocates for gay marriage in New Jersey gather outside the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. A judge could order New Jersey to recognize gay marriages after a hearing Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. A group of gay New Jersey couples has asked for a quick ruling on the lawsuit seeking recognition of same-sex marriages. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File) (Mel Evans/AP/File)

Post-DOMA: Where do same-sex couples stand?

By Roberton WilliamsContributor / 08.16.13

It’s been less than two months since the Supreme Court ruled part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and the fallout has only begun to settle. Nowhere is there more uncertainty about the effects of the ruling than regarding federal taxes.

The court struck down Section 3 of DOMA, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages. It left in place Section 2, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. That means that if a same-sex couple legally married in a state that allows gay marriage subsequently moves to a state that doesn’t, their marriage ceases to exist where they reside.

What does that mean for the couple’s federal taxes? While they live in a state allowing same-sex marriage, the couple must file federal tax returns as a married couple. What happens when they move to a state that denies their marriage is not yet clear. That depends on whether the IRS decides to define marriage based on the couple’s residence or their “place of ceremony,” the state where they were married.

Historically, the IRS has followed a residency rule in determining marital status. If the state where you live says you’re married, you must file your federal tax return as married (although that obviously didn’t apply for same-sex couples under DOMA). If your state says you aren’t married, you must file as unmarried.

Under a residency rule, a married same-sex couple living in Maryland–which recognizes their marriage—must file their federal tax returns as married, either jointly or separately. If they move across the Potomac into Virginia—which constitutionally bars recognition of all same-sex marriages—they must switch to filing single or head of household returns. Unless Congress or the courts undo DOMA’s Section 2, that situation will prevail. ( Continue… )

After final votes were cast, members of Congress walk down the steps of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 2, 2013. Williams is skeptical it is possible to cut corporate tax rates while staying revenue-neutral. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

Tax reform: It's expensive. Can Congress pay for it?

By Roberton WilliamsContributor / 08.14.13

Covering the revenue loss from deep individual income tax rate cuts while maintaining the income tax’s current progressivity is difficult, as Howard Gleckman explained here last week. It turns out that paying for corporate tax rate cuts is even harder. And new Tax Policy Center estimates show that lowering corporate tax rates without paying for lost revenue would be highly regressive.

Calls for reducing the top corporate tax rate from the current 35 percent have come from a wide array of sources, ranging from the president to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to the business community and many economists. Our top rate is higher than that of any other developed country. That discourages investment in the U.S., and encourages income-shifting to avoid tax. Cutting our corporate tax rate makes economic sense.

But, as is the case with the individual income tax, proposals to reduce corporate taxes haven’t included specific provisions to replace the lost revenue.

That cost isn’t small: The Joint Committee on Taxation recently estimated that cutting the rate to 25 percent—and eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax—would reduce revenue by $1.3 trillion over the next decade. Proponents of rate cuts generally imply that they would cover the lost revenue by paring back or eliminating corporate tax expenditures. The problem with that is there aren’t enough of the latter.

On paper, the sum of Treasury estimates of corporate tax expenditures appears to be big enough that eliminating them could pay for the rate cut. But a closer look suggests otherwise. ( Continue… )

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), left, and the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), talk about tax reform at the 3M Innovation Center in Maplewood, Minn. in July 2013. As the battle for tax reform continues, Gleckman warns readers to be wary of tax reform that promises deep rate cuts. (Hannah Foslien/AP/File)

Beware of tax reform that promises deep rate cuts

By Contributor / 08.09.13

Two new studies show just how hard a time Congress will have trying to slash tax rates without adding trillions of dollars to the budget deficit and producing a massive tax windfall for the highest-income American households.

Last week, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that a tax plan that cuts individual rates to 10 percent and 25 percent and repeals the Alternative Minimum Tax would add almost $3.8 trillion to the budget deficit over 10 years. A plan to cut the corporate rate to 25 percent and repeal the corporate AMT would add another $1.3 trillion to the deficit.

Now the Tax Policy Center has looked at how the individual design would affect households in various income groups. Not only would such a rewrite dig a deep fiscal hole but it would also be extremely regressive. In 2015, it would cut taxes for those households in the lowest 20 percent of income (who will make roughly $25,000 or less) by an average of $3. By contrast, those in the top 1 percent (who will make an average of $2.1 million) would get an average tax cut of almost $145,000, a 10 percent boost in their after-tax income.

Middle income households (who will make an average of about $66,000) would get about $700, boosting their after-tax income by about 1.2 percent.

To put it another way, the top 20 percent of households would get nearly four-fifths of the tax cut. The top 1 percent would get more than half. ( Continue… )

A group of Detroit retirees protest against any cuts in their pensions outside the city county building in downtown Detroit, Mich. on Aug. 5, 2013. Estimates from the Bureau of Economic Analysis suggest that state and local pension obligations are soaring — a troubling sign for cities hoping to avoid declaring bankruptcy as Detroit did last month. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

State and local government deficits soar. Are others following Detroit's footsteps?

By Tracy GordonContributor / 08.08.13

What if state and local government deficits doubled over night and nobody noticed? That’s what happened last Wednesday when the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its comprehensive revision of the National Income and Product Accounts.

As my TPC colleague Donald Marron noted, the new BEA numbers downsized the federal government relative to GDP.  They assigned economic value to intellectual property (such as a TV show about nothing).  The numbers also brought about some soul searching on what GDP should be measuring.

But few people noticed that the numbers included a new measure of defined benefit (DB) pension obligations, which remain a big deal in the public sector even as most private employers have switched to 401(k)s.  Largely because of this accounting change, what the BEA calls state and local government “net savings”– or the difference between current revenues and expenditures – fell from -$129 to -$252.7 billion.

Given attention to state and local pensions lately, especially in Detroit, one would think this news would have been met with cries of alarm or at least mild curiosity. But alas, no. That oversight is unfortunate because the new data shed light on an important issue.

Previously, the National Accounts measured DB pensions on a cash basis. The only spending that counted was cash out the door when employers made pension contributions. The only income that showed up for employees was pension fund dividends and interest. Promises of future benefits didn’t appear anywhere on the ledger, as household income or business and government expenses. ( Continue… )

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), left, and the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) talk about tax reform to employees at the 3M Innovation Center in Maplewood, Minn. in July 2013. The two congressmen have been on a national tour to generate support for tax reform. (Hannah Foslien/AP/File)

Progress report: Tax reform 2013

By Contributor / 08.07.13

Over the past week, Washington has been filled with news about tax reform—some reflecting necessary but painful truths and some just bad. In no particular order, here is where reform stands as Congress leaves town for its extended summer vacation:

Big rates cuts are very expensive. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that Congress would have to eliminate trillions of dollars in individual and business tax preferences over the next decade to fully offset the cost of tax reform. JCT told senior Ways & Means Committee Democrat Sandy Levin (D-MI)  that  a plan to cut the corporate rate to 25 percent and trim individual rates to 10 percent and 25 percent and repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax would add $5 trillion to the deficit from 2014-2013. The Tax Policy Center reached a similar conclusion in 2012. In nearly all reform plans lost revenue would be made up by slashing deductions, credits and other tax preferences.  

Dave Camp Speaks. In an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Al Hunt, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) acknowledged that he’s considering changes in popular deductions for mortgage interest and charitable gifts, and may favor taxing capital gains at ordinary income rates. While Camp did not say so explicitly, trimming the charitable deduction and boosting capital gains taxes are critical to any rate-cutting reform plan. These steps would not only raise needed revenue but also are necessary to prevent rate reductions from turning into a windfall for high-income households.

Camp also said he’d try to mark-up a tax code rewrite by the end of the year and would consider tying reform to the coming battle over extending the debt limit—a fight that is likely to happen in November or December. Unlike President Obama, who backed a stand-alone corporate reform last week, Camp wants a combined individual/corporate package.

Electoral politics. 2014 Senate races increasingly intrude on tax reform, and not in a good way. Camp, who is term-limited out of his chairmanship of Ways & Means (absent a waiver by his caucus) is reportedly mulling a Senate race. Camp’s campaign would not be enhanced if he becomes identified as the guy who wants to cut the mortgage interest deduction. ( Continue… )

Dr. Raymond Martins, chief medical officer of Whitman-Walker Health, welcomes patient Eddie Jones in Washington, D.C., in July 2013. Employer-paid health insurance and other benefits can add almost seven percent to the average income of an American household, according to Gleckman. (Larry Downing/Reuters/File)

We make more money than we think

By Contributor / 08.05.13

How much money do you make? Many Americans know what their wages and salary are. But they might be surprised to know that, on average, wages account for less than half the income of a U.S. household.

Others might pull Adjusted Gross Income off their income tax return. That adds sources such as business income; interest, dividends, and capital gains; alimony; and taxable Social Security benefits and pension distributions. Combined, they generate another 25 percent, but still leave out almost one-quarter of income.

Where does the rest come from? My colleagues at the Tax Policy Center have just completed a project that aims to better define income, which they call Expanded Cash Income, or ECI. It includes a lot of money that many of us might not consider income, but should. 

For instance, employer-paid health insurance and other non-retirement fringe benefits add almost 7 percent to the average income of an American household. The employer share of payroll taxes bumps it up by more than 3 percent and employer contributions to retirement plans adds roughly another 1 percent. Combined, those employer-paid benefits and contributions boost our incomes about 11 percent, even though we don’t pay tax on that compensation.    

Gross compensation is total comp before your employer subtracts benefits including payroll taxes. If your boss didn’t have to pay those taxes, your wages would be higher.        ( Continue… )

Kim Allen holds copper wires as she shows how she removes metals like copper from old generators at her job at Green Works in Detroit, Mich. earlier this year. The bankruptcy of Detroit is a lesson for other US cities that there is no substitute for a thriving economy and governance structure, Gordon says. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File)

What America can learn from Detroit's pension blues

By Tracy GordonContributor / 08.02.13

In the week since Detroit became the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, many commentators have speculated about what, if anything, this action means for the rest of the country.  One narrative is that Detroit is sui generis – a city whose fiscal problems were long in the making, aided by broad macroeconomic forces and the city’s own political dysfunction.  Indeed, Detroit’s previous mayor is in jail and several former officials, including a city treasurer, are under investigation for pay-to-play scandals at the city’s pension funds.

Another popular story line is that Detroit provides a glimpse into the future for states and localities where politicians made unrealistic promises to public sector workers and shifted the bill on to future taxpayers.  A look at local pension finances across the country provides some support for this view.  By their own math, locally administered pension plans had assets to cover 72 percent of their projected liabilities in 2011.  However, this funded ratio dropped to 50 percent when future obligations were treated as more certain (like contracts, as state constitutions and some courts have required) and therefore on more equal footing with present day costs.

In Detroit, state appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has calculated the city’s unfunded pension liabilities at a whopping $3.5 billion.  Pension costs have escalated even though the city eliminated more than 40 percent of its workforce (7,000 full time equivalent employees) over the past decade.  One reason for this apparent disconnect is that pension contributions must cover both active workers and a portion of unfunded liabilities from the past.  As a result, it can be very difficult for cities to get out from under a pension overhang.

Like other mainly Midwestern and Northeastern U.S. cities, Detroit used to be big, but now it is small.  Its ratio of public sector workers to retirees has dropped from more than 3 at the end of the 1950s to less than 1 today.  Cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore also show big declines in their worker-retiree ratios.

This may sound a lot like the U.S. Social Security system.  However, state and local pensions are not social insurance programs; they are part of public employees’ compensation packages (a fact underscored in today’s Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts).  Because they are payments for services already rendered and consumed by current taxpayers, they are supposed to be at least partly prefunded, not financed on an ongoing or “pay-as-you-go” basis. ( Continue… )

President Barack Obama waves as he walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Despite analysts' forecasts, the federal budget is smaller (relative to the economy) than previously thought, Marron says. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Uncle Sam is smaller than we thought

By Contributor / 08.01.13

At 8:30 yesterday morning, Uncle Sam suddenly shrunk.

Federal spending fell from 21.5 percent of gross domestic product to 20.8 percent, while taxes declined from 17.5 percent to 16.9 percent.

To be clear, the government is spending and collecting just as much as it did yesterday. But we now know that the U.S. economy is bigger than we thought. GDP totaled $16.2 trillion in 2012, for example, about $560 billion larger than the Bureau of Economic Analysis previously estimated. That 3.6 percent boost reflects the Bureau’s new accounting system, which now treats research and development and artistic creation as investments rather than immediate expenses.

In the days and months ahead, analysts will sort through these and other revisions (which stretch back to 1929) to see how they change our understanding of America’s economic history. But one effect is already clear: the federal budget is smaller, relative to the economy, than previously thought.

The public debt, for example, was on track to hit 75 percent of GDP at year’s end; that figure is now 72.5 percent. Taxes had averaged about 18 percent of GDP over the past four decades; now that figure is about 17.5 percent. Average spending similarly got marked down from 21 percent of GDP to about 20.5 percent. ( Continue… )

President Barack Obama returns from Chattanooga, Tenn., where he spoke about the middle class and the economy on July 30, 2013. Obama's proposal to cut the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent was sharply criticized by Republicans, who say they will not back tax reform under any plan that reduces revenue. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Obama's 'grand bargain' is another dead end

By Contributor / 07.31.13

In a speech yesterday in Chattanooga TN, President Obama made congressional Republicans an offer they could refuse. And they did

By doing so, Obama may have quashed the last shred of hope that tax reform can happen before the 2014 congressional elections.

In what the White House pitched as a new idea, Obama offered to decouple corporate tax restructuring from individual reform. This is odd since the president proposed stand-alone corporate reform as far back as 2012.   

His latest iteration doesn’t seem much different. Like his earlier plan, it would cut the top corporate rate to 28 percent from 35 percent and eliminate billions of dollars in (largely unidentified) corporate deductions and other tax preferences.  But last year he called for revenue neutral reform (that is, a plan that would raise the same amount of money as the current corporate tax code). This time, he is pushing reform that would generate billions of dollars in new revenue, though it is not exactly clear how.  

While the White House never quite says, Obama may want to pay for his jobs initiative with a tax on foreign earnings that multinationals return to the U.S. during a limited tax “holiday.” But those firms already owe 35 percent when they repatriate those profits. A special low tax of 10-15 percent, which is what he may have in mind, is not a tax hike, it is a tax cut.     ( Continue… )

The exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington.The First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that private equity funds are engaged in a trade or business under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, a ruling which could op0en the door for higher taxes for private equity firms and their investors down the line. (Susan Walsh/AP/File)

Private equity investor? Higher taxes may be looming.

By Steven RosenthalGuest blogger / 07.26.13

The First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that private equity funds are engaged in a trade or business under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  The court said the case, Sun Capital Partners v. New England Teamsters & Trucking, “presented important issues of first impression.”   And the court’s resolution of the trade or business issue now may open the door to much higher taxes for private equity funds and their investors. 

In a unanimous decision, the First Circuit rejected the district court’s finding that private equity funds are merely “passive” investors, which is the position that nearly all private equity funds take for tax purposes.  Under a typical fund’s partnership agreement, the fund must avoid engaging in a trade or business for Federal income tax purposes. 

However, the First Circuit concluded that private equity funds that actively manage the operations of their portfolio companies are engaged in a trade or business.  It does not matter whether a fund has employees or offices, or if its management company has the employees and offices.  The key is whether the fund’s activities (including those of its management company) exceed those of a typical investor.  That extra effort, of course, is the essence of private equity business and is used to justify the huge fees the funds charge their investors.  

While the decision in Sun Capital means that private equity funds may be liable for unfunded pension liabilities of their portfolio companies, it potentially has much broader tax implications that are critical for private equity funds and their investors.  For tax exempt or foreign investors, income from a private equity fund that is engaged in a trade or business is potentially subject to the unrelated business income tax (UBIT) or withholding taxes, respectively.  Moreover the decision buttresses the argument that the income of private equity managers should be taxed at higher ordinary income rates, rather than capital gains rates.  For more detail on this argument take a look at Tax Vox blogs here  and here.

Now may be a good time for private equity funds, their managers, investors, and advisers to reexamine their tax position.

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!