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Rick Perry's flat tax plan: Would you have to do your taxes twice?

People could opt for flat tax rate of 20 percent or stick with the current tax system. The Rick Perry plan offers choice, but people might need to do two calculations to tell which is best, some say.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / October 25, 2011

Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during a visit to plastics manufacturer ISO Poly Films in Gray Court, South Carolina Tuesday.

Mary Ann Chastain/Reuters

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has entered the flat tax sweepstakes.

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Mr. Perry is hoping his 20-20 flat tax rate will resonate as widely as Herman Cain’s "9-9-9" tax plan, which features a 9 percent sales tax, 9 percent personal income tax, and 9 percent corporate income tax.

“This is a change election, and I offer a plan that changes the way Washington does business,” the Texas governor said Tuesday at an event in Gray Court, S.C.

But on his way to simplifying the tax code, Perry says, he wants to let Americans choose their tax rate: A taxpayer can opt for the 20 percent flat tax – with certain deductions – or stick with whatever rate he or she is currently paying. To quote a well-known ad jingle, “have it your way.”

For people who opt for the flat tax, says Perry, filing will be as simple as mailing in a postcard, saving a collective $483 billion in costs associated with complying with the federal tax code.

On the postcard is room for deductions for home-mortgage interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes, for those making less than $500,000 a year. At the same time, the standard individual exemption would jump from $3,600 to $12,500.

That means the 20 percent tax rate actually might be quite a bit lower, especially for people who borrowed a lot of money to buy a house, paid high property taxes, and gave a lot of money to charity.

At the same time, businesses would pay a 20 percent rate on profits, down from today's top rate of 35 percent. Multinationals would get a break in the form of a low 5.2 percent tax rate for $1.4 trillion currently parked overseas.

Some outside experts say Perry’s attempt at simplicity will have the opposite effect on taxpayers.

“It will force some to do taxes twice to see which way they come out ahead,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former domestic adviser to President Ronald Reagan and a former Treasury official in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. “It adds complexity to an already complex system.”

Some commentators ask whether taxpayers might be tempted to “game” the system by figuring out how to structure their income and deductions to maximize whatever side of the coin they want to come out on.

“You still have to use TurboTax [software] to figure out which is better,” quips Ted Gayer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If you can jump back and forth between tax systems in different years, you might want to structure your deductions to fit the tax code.”

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