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NC Budget and Tax Center

State lawmakers are targeting cash-strapped homeowners as they continue to pursue tax changes that would shift even more of the tax load to low- and middle-income taxpayers, while preserving tax benefits that have largely flowed to the wealthy and profitable corporations.

Legislation approved by the state Senate (Senate Bill 20) would require homeowners to pay state income tax on mortgage debt forgiven by lenders. Meanwhile, financial institutions that provide such consumer relief are allowed to deduct the expense as a tax write-off.

The proposal would undermine a key element of North Carolina’s recovery from the nationwide housing crisis that fueled the Great Recession. In the wake of the crisis, a number of financial institutions  agreed to  settlements that provide consumers relief for unaffordable mortgages. This often meant reducing the amount of principal debt they owed on their mortgages to make them more affordable and lessen the likelihood of foreclosure. Furthermore, the 49-state National Mortgage Settlement encourages mortgage servicers to provide such relief to distressed borrowers affected by the housing crisis.

The goal of these settlements is to ensure that homeowners who were preyed upon by unethical lenders do not fall into the financial tailspin that foreclosure often creates. The tax change proposed by the Senate would require cash-strapped homeowners who have already suffered from the disastrous housing crisis and economic downturn to report this debt forgiveness as income, even though no actual cash is provided to the homeowners.

This could deter families from accepting bank offers to modify their mortgage loans because they cannot afford to pay taxes on the amount of relief they get. Distressed homeowners seeking to stabilize their finances and rebuild in the wake of the housing crisis would face a major setback. Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

The latest Who Pays? report released today by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) takes a look at the fairness of state tax systems. For North Carolina, the lowest income North Carolinians pay over 70 percent more in state and local taxes as a share of their income compared to the state’s wealthiest residents, the ITEP report highlights.

The lowest 20 percent of North Carolinians – with an average income of $10,700 – pay 9.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the study finds, compared to 5.3 percent for the top 1 percent, the average income for this group is $969,100.

North Carolina’s unfair tax system presents both short- and long-term challenges and concerns. The state’s unfair tax system not only contributes to widening income inequality in the short term, but also leaves the state struggling to raise adequate revenue for public investments in the long term, ITEP notes. These realities are already playing out in the North Carolina. As state lawmakers return to Raleigh this week for the 2015 legislative session they face an ongoing revenue shortfall as a result of tax cuts passed in 2013.

North Carolina has moved away from many features that create a fairer tax system. State lawmakers replaced a graduated personal income tax rate structure (meaning the higher one’s income, the higher one’s effective personal income tax rate) with a flat rate that doesn’t take into account a taxpayer’s ability to pay, allowed the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to expire, expanded the sales tax base, and allowed the corporate income tax rate to be cut from 6.9 to 5 percent and potentially as low as 3 percent.

These changes have resulted in a sizable reduction in revenue, with the state now challenged with funding basic public obligations such as education and healthcare services for the elderly and poor. Returning to a graduated income tax rate structure, reestablishing a state Earned Income Tax Credit, creating a renter’s credit or an enhanced and refundable Child Tax Credit, and stopping further tax cuts that largely benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations are important opportunities to create a fairer state tax code.

A state tax code that works for all North Carolina taxpayers is important for ensuring that economic opportunity and prosperity is broadly shared. The Who Pays? report highlights that there is work to be done to make this a reality.

Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center

The ballooning cost of recent state tax cuts is one of the key stories of 2014. While state leaders argued over how to pay for increasing teacher salaries, it was easy to forget that the 2013 tax cut package was a huge part of the reason that funds were so hard to come by. The 2013 tax cuts, which largely went to the wealthiest North Carolinians, are forcing us to make unnecessary choices between funding schools or roads, healthcare or economic development, local governments or state services. It didn’t have to be this way and, as the charts presented here clearly show, the costs of the 2013 tax cuts are becoming increasingly clear.

Many proponents argued that the 2013 tax cuts would stimulate new economic growth and, as a result, the cost of reducing rates would be largely offset because there would be more economic activity to tax. The idea that tax cuts will actually increase revenue is based on a simple intuition popularized by Art Laffer. Laffer’s thought experiment holds that lowering the cost of doing business will cause people to invest and spend more, so the total economy will grow, which will ultimately result in government collecting more revenue. Like many exercises in theoretical economics, the “Laffer Curve” is just a mathematical equation. It looks nice on a napkin, and has an pleasantly simple logic, but the real world is often allergic to this kind of treatment and refuses to behave as theorists’ models expect. Unfortunately, the consequences of putting faith in the Laffer Curve are anything but theoretical. As this economic experiment on North Carolina continues, the results are not looking good for the subject.

2014 End of Year Charts_tax cuts dig a hole

While sober analysis always showed that the 2013 tax cuts would reduce revenues, the hole keeps getting deeper every time we look at it. As can be seen in the chart above, initial estimates projected a roughly $500 million reduction in state tax revenues for the 2014-15 fiscal year. Estimates released this month have the cost rising to almost $900 million and, according to our analysis, the bill could top $1 billion. Thus far this fiscal year, actual tax collections have been lower than was expected even with the cost of the tax cut included. The December state revenue update shows that we are $190 million short of projections. We will know the real fiscal impact after sales taxes from the Christmas shopping season known and income tax returns are filed next year, but all indications to date are that the 2013 cuts will blow an enormous hole in current and future state budgets.

2014 End of Year Charts_underfund the recovery

The result of the ballooning revenue shortfall, is that state spending has not recovered to pre-recession levels. When the economy collapsed in 2008, it dramatically undermined state revenues, forcing a series of unusual measures to try to fill the gap. Under normal conditions, the return to positive economic growth brings in more revenue, allowing departments and divisions in state government to address needs they had put off during the squeeze. As can be seen above, this is the pattern for each of the last three recessions dating back to the early 1980’s. Each recession initially forced North Carolina to spend less than was anticipated when revenues fell, but spending bounced back within a few years allowing North Carolina to get back to business. Policy choices in the recent recovery are a departure from previous budgetary practice. We have usually seen reduced state spending during the initial downturn, followed by accelerated investing during the recovery to make up for lost ground and restore the state’s public service infrastructure. We are seven years removed from the onset of the Great Recession and, because of the 2013 tax cuts, state revenues remain roughly 10 percent below their pre-recession levels.

All of this means undercutting the future of North Carolina. The state still has a backlog of expenditures that were put off during the recession, positions unfilled, buildings overdue for repair, roads and bridges that need fixing or expanding, local governments who have lost state support for key services, and much more. We also face an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Many of the people who lost their jobs during the recession still need help retooling their skills and the challenge of preparing children to survive in the 21st century economy keeps getting more complex. As the legislative session gets started in 2015, remember that the choice to reduce taxes on the most fortunate among us is a major reason that key investments for the rest of North Carolina are not being made.

Commentary
Eric Garner

Photo: www.commondreams.org

The issue of young men of color dying in police custody has been dominating the national news of late and rightfully so. Millions of Americans in many cities — mostly people of color — live in fear and/or distrust of the police in their communities and this is not a recipe for a healthy society. Concerted action — protests, demands, and action by community leaders and elected officials — are all necessary if we are are going to tackle this unacceptable situation.

Dana Millbank of the Washington Post was right recently when he wrote that President Obama would do well to seize the moment surrounding the outrage that’s occurred across the political spectrum in the Eric Garner case out of New York (tragically pictured above) in which a young man was killed by a police choke hold. As Millbank noted, the Garner tragedy offers some glimmers of hope in that the killing is actually drawing harsh assessments from white commentators on the right who rushed to the defense of the police officer in the Ferguson, Missouri case.

What to really DO about the situation, however, is less clear. Millbank says President Obama should  look at creating alternatives the grand juries for investigating police deaths. Others are pushing the idea of police body cameras. Those are both promising ideas as far as they go.

The real solution that no one really seems to want to talk about, however, is this: Read More

Commentary

TaxesCatherine Rampell of the Washington Post has an excellent essay in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer about how the American aversion to taxes has become an irrational and destructive affliction. Not only are we leaving core public structures and services chronically underfunded, we’re skewing our entire political system by turning our public servants into scavengers who must concoct ever-more-elaborate schemes to pay for the services we demand.

“Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Think of recent, infuriating stories on civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement seizes cash and other property from people who are never charged with crimes. Often the departments that do the seizing get to keep the proceeds, which leads to terrible incentives. Officers around the country now attend workshops that offer tips on the best goodies to nab (go for flat-screen TVs, not jewelry).

Forcing cops to remit forfeiture proceeds to the state or local treasury, rather than allowing an eat-what-you-kill policy, might discourage bad behavior to some degree. But at heart, the reason such actions are so commonplace is that government revenue has to come from somewhere, if it ain’t coming from taxes.”

As Rampell goes on to point out, this ridiculous state of affairs is transforming how we fund government from a broadly-shared, democratic enterprise  into a regressive, market-distorting mess. She might’ve also mentioned that it’s helping to transform how we think about government as well. Where once all citizens were stakeholders/owners, we’re now becoming cheapskate bargain hunters looking only to get the best deals for ourselves (e.g. private school vouchers).

Her solution: “It’s time to take off the fiscal blinkers and start rewarding politicians who have the courage to advocate raising revenues the old-fashioned way: through taxes.”

Amen to that.