Friday, January 31, 2020
One of the reasons that the soda tax hasn’t been popping up in this blog for the past 12 months is that there has been much less activity and fewer attempts at enacting soda taxes across the nation. One reason, perhaps the principal reason, for this pause is explained in a Philadelphia Inquirer article from a few days ago. According to the article, the prediction that many localities would follow the soda tax legislation enacted in Philadelphia has not come to fruition because the soda industry expanded its fight against the tax from Philadelphia and other local jurisdictions to state legislatures. Despite public health officials predicting that dozens, if not hundreds, of cities and towns would enact soda taxes or some variant of soda taxes, only seven cities have one in place. It has been two years since a city has enacted a soda tax.
What the beverage industry has been doing is to lobby state legislatures to enact legislation prohibiting local governments from enacting soda taxes, and in some instances, other taxes as well. There are a variety of reasons state legislatures are easily persuaded to prohibit local governments from adding new taxes. State legislatures find it convenient to hold taxing power, because it provides leverage with respect to other issues. State legislatures can be cognizant of the “border crossing” issue, as exemplified by the number of Philadelphia residents taking their beverage, and even grocery shopping, across the city’s boundaries into adjacent suburban towns.
Though Philadelphia was not the first city to enact a soda tax – Berkeley, California was – its legislation and experience became a model for subsequent enactments and Philadelphia became the focal point of the dispute between soda tax advocates and the beverage industry. Though six other cities have a soda tax – Seattle, Boulder, Colorado, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Albany, California – attempts to enact a soda tax in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was voted own, and Cook County repealed the one it had enacted. Seven proposals pending elsewhere have not been enacted.
Philadelphia’s mayor Jim Kenney, the leading advocate of soda taxes in Philadelphia, reacted to the hiatus in soda tax enactments by expressing this thought: “It’s a shame, because that money could be going to really good purposes in many communities.” It’s interesting that his focus was on the revenue, and not on the alleged public health benefits. Throughout my commentaries, I have stressed that the soda tax was motivated more by the quick and simple increase in revenue that it presents rather than a true concern for public health, because a genuine public health motivation would extend the tax to all sugar-containing foods and beverages, and would not reach, as some of these taxes do, beverages that do not contain sugar.
Opponents of Philadelphia’s soda tax want its repeal, though some seem willing to accept a modification. The biggest complaints are the high rate of the tax and the application of the tax to beverages that are far from unhealthy. The solution, of course, is what I have been proposing all along, that is, to expand the tax to include all items containing sugar and to lower the rate. Properly drafted, the revenue would be unaffected but the rate would be reduced to a level sufficiently low that it would not have the negative collateral effects that the current tax generates.
The so-called “war,” as the article describes the political jockeying, will continue, both in Philadelphia and across the nation. It will end only when the two sides find a way to meet in the middle, as I propose. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening is low, because at the moment whatever issue is being considered across the nation, the two sides line up in such a way as to make the middle a dangerous, and thus unattractive, place. Until the zealots on both sides find a way to understand the long-term disadvantages of zealous partisanship, not just on taxes or soda taxes or any issue, “war” and its adverse consequences will continue to thwart human progress.
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
The writer of the letter, Graham Downie of O’Connor, suggests that the solution is to impose a tax on tyres based on a sliding scale reflecting tyre sizes. His rationale is that the larger the tyres and the more the number of tyres, the more damage the vehicle does to the road. I completely disagree. For example, there are a variety of vehicles that use four tires but that weigh anywhere from 1,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds. The difference in tire size, if any, is small. The size and number of tires provides insufficient information. For example, weight is a better indicator of stress put on transportation infrastructure by a vehicle.
Mr. Downie suggests that a tyre tax would “avoid the infrastructure required to collect a tax retrospectively, based on odometer readings, as suggested by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia.” He adds that “It would also avoid the possibility, indeed likelihood, of odometer tampering to avoid the tax.” Though odometer tampering has become increasingly difficult over the years because of new technology, and increases in the criminal penalties for engaging in odometer tampering, the device used in mileage-based road fee programs does not rely on the odometer, and it also identifies the type of road used by the vehicle, something that neither tires nor odometers can do.
Mr. Downie points out that in Australia, a tyre tax would need to be imposed by the Federal government, because otherwise states and territories could and would set varying amounts of tax, tempting vehicle owners to make cross-border purchases. Each state or territory has different policies with respect to highway development, maintenance, and repair, and faces different levels of burden depending on climate, population, and other factors. Thus, each state or territory justifiably would set different tyre tax rates. One advantage of the mileage-based road fee system is that the charge not only can be set to reflect a vehicle’s weight but also the number of miles driven in each state or territory. This issue is not unique to Australia, because its state-Federal structure is not unlike the one in the United States.
I agree with Mr. Downie that whatever system replaces the liquid fuel taxes must take into account the damage caused by vehicles, and thus should adjust for weight. I simply disagree that tyres are a reasonable proxy for that measure. I also agree with Mr. Downie that whatever system is adopted should encourage greater use of railroads for the shipment of heavy goods.
Readers of MauledAgain know that I am a strong supporter of the mileage-based road fee. Anyone interested in my commentaries, in which I have explained, defended, and advocated the mileage-based road fee can take a look at posts such as Tax Meets Technology on the Road, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again, Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy, Pennsylvania State Gasoline Tax Increase: The Last Hurrah?, Making Progress with Mileage-Based Road Fees, Mileage-Based Road Fees Gain More Traction, Looking More Closely at Mileage-Based Road Fees, The Mileage-Based Road Fee Lives On, Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee So Terrible?, Defending the Mileage-Based Road Fee, Liquid Fuels Tax Increases on the Table, Searching For What Already Has Been Found, Tax Style, Highways Are Not Free, Mileage-Based Road Fees: Privatization and Privacy, Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee a Threat to Privacy?, So Who Should Pay for Roads?, Between Theory and Reality is the (Tax) Test, Mileage-Based Road Fee Inching Ahead, Rebutting Arguments Against Mileage-Based Road Fees, On the Mileage-Based Road Fee Highway: Young at (Tax) Heart?, To Test The Mileage-Based Road Fee, There Needs to Be a Test, What Sort of Tax or Fee Will Hawaii Use to Fix Its Highways?, And Now It’s California Facing the Road Funding Tax Issues, If Users Don’t Pay, Who Should?, Taking Responsibility for Funding Highways, Should Tax Increases Reflect Populist Sentiment?, When It Comes to the Mileage-Based Road Fee, Try It, You’ll Like It, Mileage-Based Road Fees: A Positive Trend?, Understanding the Mileage-Based Road Fee, Tax Opposition: A Costly Road to Follow, Progress on the Mileage-Based Road Fee Front?, Mileage-Based Road Fee Enters Illinois Gubernatorial Campaign, Is a User-Fee-Based System Incompatible With Progressive Income Taxation?. Will Private Ownership of Public Necessities Work?, Revenue Problems With A User Fee Solution Crying for Attention, Plans for Mileage-Based Road Fees Continue to Grow, Getting Technical With the Mileage-Based Road Fee, Once Again, Rebutting Arguments Against Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Getting to the Mileage-Based Road Fee in Tiny Steps.
Monday, January 27, 2020
In my commentary, I pointed out that the amount of real property tax treated as paid on account of the services would be treated as wages subject to income taxation. I noted that unless the state changed its tax laws, those taking advantage of these arrangements would incur higher state income taxes. I also noted that federal income taxes would increase for these individuals.
Recently, reader Morris pointed me in the direction of a report from the Daily News of Newburyport. According to the report, nine senior citizens who worked for the town of West Newbury in Massachusetts “were surprised to learn they would have to pay federal withholding taxes on their earnings.” Although the Massachusetts Department of Revenue concluded that the amount of the property tax treated as paid on account of the work would not be treated as income or wages for state income tax purposes, the amount is treated as wage income for federal income tax purposes and for social security tax purposes.
The town, unfortunately, had not been withholding any tax on the amounts in question until this past June, when several township officials learned at a seminar that withholding of federal income tax and social security tax was required. They did not tell those participating in the work-to-reduce-property-tax arrangement that the town would begin withholding the taxes.
Clearly, in the absence of legislation to the contrary, as enacted, for example, by Massachusetts, the amount of taxes deemed paid on account of the work constitutes gross income. The logic is simple. The locality is, in effect, paying wages to the individuals participating in the arrangement, and then the individuals are paying their real property tax. The fact that the money goes directly from one town account to another and doesn’t pass through the hands of the individuals is irrelevant. Over the decades, there have been cases involving employers paying debts of employees directly to the creditors, and the courts have consistently held that the amount in question constitutes wages included in gross income even though the money goes directly from the employer to the creditor and does not pass through the hands of the employee. The best example is the withholding of taxes by an employer, paid directly by the employer to the taxing authority on behalf of the employee. The employee’s taxable wages are not reduced by the amount of the withheld taxes.
These principles are addressed early in a basic federal income tax course. The outcome in West Newbury is not a surprise to tax professionals or students who are or have been enrolled in a basic tax course. Understandably, when these principles were applied to the individuals participating I the work-to-reduce-property-tax arrangement without advance notice, it must have been quite a surprise.
Friday, January 24, 2020
According to this report, owners of electric and hybrid vehicles registered in Utah will have the option to pay a “road user charge” based on miles driven rather than a fixed fee that otherwise must be paid by owners of those vehicles. The mileage is recorded by a device that plugs into the OBD port. A few months ago, I used one in a pilot program in the area where I live and it was very easy to install and activate the device.
A spokesperson for the Utah Department of Transportation explained, “We’re falling behind right now, and so this is preparing for the future. We believe in the next 15 to 20 years, the gas tax is losing its connection from the amount of people who use the roads. That’s a key principle we believe in Utah — we believe people should pay for what they use, and people will make better decisions if they understand the impacts of their use. We have to fund the roads somehow. We’re all for clean air and clean vehicles — we think that’s definitely the future for us ... but if I drive 10 miles I should pay for 10 miles.” Legislatures in the other 48 states and the District of Columbia need to make similar, timely progress. Too often, legislatures are way behind the times. Playing catch-up ultimately takes a toll. See what I did there?
Utah has set the mileage-based road fee so that it will not exceed the alternative fixed fee that otherwise must be paid. Thus, no one loses by opting into the program, and the possibility of saving money looms large for many vehicle owners. Why is Utah setting it up this way? The spokesperson explained, “We understand there’s a lot for us to learn, so we want people to sign up and experience it. So we wanted to make sure if they choose to participate, it’s not going to cost more money if they just pay the flat fee.”
In 2019, there were almost 2.6 million vehicles registered in Utah. About 52,000 were electric or hybrid (or other alternative fuel) vehicles. From 2015 to 2019, there was a 49 percent increase in registration of electric vehicles and a 14 percent increase in registration of hybrid vehicles. The future is obvious to those who look, and so is the need for states, and the federal government, to wean themselves off of liquid fuel taxes.
Kudos to Utah on this small step. Hopefully it is not the last but the first of many, throughout the nation. And also hopefully, those future steps happen sooner than later. Time is running out for finding ways to fund highway, bridge, and tunnel maintenance, repair, and improvement.
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
The story, from back in July of last year, is not the first chapter in the series of events. The story describes the sentencing of two people who entered guilty pleas in connection with the murder, but it contains enough information to relate things from the beginning. A third person lost a plea opportunity because he fired his attorney and will go to trial.
According to the story, Laya Whitley worked with Keiauna Davis at a Dollar General store. Somehome, Whitley learned that Davis had received a $3,000 tax refund. Whitley arranged for Dane Taylor to rob Davis when Davis left work later that day. When Davis left work, and was walking along the road, a car driven by Kaijin Scott stopped in front of Davis, and Taylor emerged from the passenger side and knocked Davis to the ground. Unbeknownst to the perpetrators, a video camera recorded the events. Davis refused to surrender her purse, so Taylor shot and killed her. Whitley and Taylor were the two who offered guilty pleas. Whitley was sentenced to 20 to 50 years in prison, and Taylor to 30 to 60 years in prison.
It is unclear how Whitley learned about the tax refund received by Davis. Did Davis say something? Brag about the amount? Did Whitley overhear Davis talking on the phone with a friend or relative or even her tax return preparer? It also is unclear whether she was carrying cash, a debit card, or a check. It even is unclear whether she had the refund with her or Whitley simply assumed that she did.
There are two lessons to be learned. The first one is obvious. Don’t rob. Don’t steal. Don’t, as the judge in the case put it, love money more than people. The second one should be obvious but might not be, at least for some people. Don’t discuss tax or financial information in public. Don’t talk about those things where others can overhear. Don’t brag about tax refunds, lottery winnings, casino jackpots, or other things that are tempting to those whose need for, or desire for, money exceeds their ability to behave appropriately. Be careful.
Monday, January 20, 2020
I’ve described my proposal in a series of posts, including How To Use Tax Breaks to Properly Stimulate an Economy, How To Use the Tax Law to Create Jobs and Raise Wages, Yet Another Reason For “First the Jobs, Then the Tax Break”, When Will “First the Jobs, Then the Tax Break” Supersede the Empty Promises?, No Tax Break Until Taxpayer Promises Are Fulfilled, When Job Creation Promises Justifying Tax Breaks Are Broken, Why the Job Cuts By Tax Cut Recipients?, and Broken Tax Promises Should No Longer Be Accepted.
My focus has primarily been on the broken promises of job creation made by businesses and wealthy individuals who end up failing to create jobs, and worse, in some instances, eliminating jobs. What is the proposal? I described it in Broken Tax Promises Should No Longer Be Accepted:
It’s this easy to understand:I noted that my proposal would probably not get much attention “[b]ecause it is highly unlikely that members of Congress read this blog.” But perhaps someone in Indiana did. Why do I think that? Reader Morris directed my attention to this report from WISH-TV in Indianapolis. According to the story, SoChatti, a chocolate manufacturer, plans to open a food production and research center in Indianapolis, expecting to create 71 jobs by the end of 2023. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which administers tax credits under the state Community Revitalization Enhancement District Tax Credit Program, will grant SoChatti up to $500,000 in tax credits, provided SoChatti actually hires workers. Presumably those job positions would need to remain in place for some reasonable period of time.Employers could be allowed to deduct not only compensation paid, but, in addition, a percentage, perhaps 25 or 30 percent, of the excess of the compensation paid during the taxable year and the compensation paid during the previous taxable year, perhaps leaving out of the computation increases in compensation paid to individuals earning more than a specific amount, such as $150,000, $200,000 or some similar figure in that range. This incentive would, or at least should, encourage employers to raise the pay of their low compensation employees rather than CEOs and other highly compensated employees. As for employers that would have no use for these deductions, encouraging failing businesses or successful businesses that use tax shelters to mask taxable income, they ought not be encouraged to continue on those paths. In this way, tax breaks would be tied to performance. People who don’t create jobs ought not get to share in tax breaks held out as job-creation inducements.What motivated my proposal? As I explained in How To Use Tax Breaks to Properly Stimulate an Economy:The worst way to use the tax law to encourage behavior is to hand out tax breaks without requiring anything in return other than promises. Promises too often are made to be broken. This is why the legislation enacted in December is proving to be a long-term failure. It came with promises of increased pay and increased production, but it did nothing to require those things. So a few bonus crumbs of several hundred dollars were handed to a small fraction of the work force, an even smaller group picked up a $1,000 bonus, and tens of thousands of individuals lost their jobs.How difficult is it to understand the proposal? I answered that in Yet Another Reason For “First the Jobs, Then the Tax Break”:it’s time to stop with the “here’s a tax break, now create the jobs you promised and if you don’t, oh well, see you at my next campaign fund raiser” approach to tax legislation, and to implement the “create jobs, get a short-term tax break, don’t cut those jobs next year, get another short-term tax break” style of holding tax break recipients’ feet to the fire. When a child says, “Give me a cookie and I’ll behave properly,” sensible parents reply, “Show me you can behave properly and then you’ll get a cookie.” It’s that simple, really.
Kudos to the folks in Indiana who arranged for these conditional tax credits. Whether or not they got the idea from reading MauledAgain, and I doubt it though it is possible, they are demonstrating to other legislatures how tax breaks should be handled. Simply tossing money at one’s friends, as has happened too often at the federal, state, and local levels of government, is simply and totally unacceptable. Here’s hoping what has happened in Indiana goes viral, and here’s even hoping that the tax break giveaways based on broken promises are repealed and the tax breaks repaid to the governments that granted them.
Friday, January 17, 2020
A reader reacted by letting me know that a few days ago, while driving home in Colorado, he heard a state legislator announce that he wants to “push through a bill that would stop all his colleagues from using the words [tax and fee] incorrectly.” My attempts to find this bill, assuming it has been introduced and isn’t still something being drafted, have been futile. But even without seeing the language, it is possible to consider the idea.
My first reaction was one of curiosity. Is the effort an attempt to compel legislators to use the terms correctly when drafting and enacting legislation? If so, then the legislator in question might be onto something. But does a legislature need legislation to deal with these issues or can it be handled with a rule or a style guide for staff who do the drafting of statutory language? Either way, the legislation or rule would need to contain definitions and guidance with respect to use of the terms. On the other hand, if the effort is an attempt to control the speech of legislators beyond the use of language in legislation, other concerns arise.
My second reaction considered the possibility that the proposal was an attempt to deal with use of the two terms beyond legislative drafting issues. In that case, there surely is a First Amendment problem. Legislators, like all Americans, have a right to use language incorrectly without interference from a government. Of course, the rest of us have a right to expose the error, explain the error, and attempt to educate the person misusing language. As absurd as it might seem that misuse of a term is protected, it is helpful because it lets the rest of us know that the person misusing the term not only lacks understanding about the proper terminology but probably also lacks understanding about the deeper substantive issues involved.
My third reaction focused on enforcement. Enforcing a statute or rule focused on legislative drafting ought not be too challenging. Someone simply is given the authority to edit the language. But enforcing a statute compelling proper use of the terms “tax” and “fee” beyond the legislative chamber, such as in campaign speeches or editorials written by legislators for their hometown papers, is a daunting task. What would be the penalty? Certainly not banishment from the legislature? Jail time? A fine? Some sort of public denunciation? I suppose it would be helpful to see the text of the proposed bill, if it exists, to see what the legislator proposing this idea has in mind.
If anything more on this idea develops and I learn about it, I’m confident I will have more reactions. In the meantime, it gives us something to ponder.
Wednesday, January 15, 2020
I noted that answering the question, is it a tax or fee, was impossible without access to the actual language of the proposal. I confessed that I could not find the language, and did not see a link in the story to the proposal. Somehow reader Morris dug up the language. It’s in this Milwaukee Record article. The word “tax” does not appear in the language of the proposed statute. The word “fee” is used consistently to refer to the proposed charge.
Interestingly, several of the six comments to the article refer to the proposed charge as a tax, one refers to it as a fee, and the others use the word tax in a manner suggesting that the proposed charge is a tax. Is this surprising? Not really. Recall that in several of my commentaries on taxes and fees, I have shared my belief that people often deliberately use the word “tax” to describe any amount paid to a government because of a desire to appeal to emotions rather than reason. On the other hand, does designating the proposed charge as a fee mean that it is a fee? No. It is a fee because it is a charge for using roads.
The glitch in this proposed fee isn’t that it is called a fee. It is the manner in which it is imposed. Consider a township that collects residents’ trash, and charges a trash fee. Would it be appropriate to impose the fee only on houses with even street numbers, or on properties with sheds, or on homeowners whose surnames begin with vowels? It’s not just delivery vehicles that put wear and tear on the streets, and so a “street maintenance fee,” which is what the charge is called in the proposed statute, should be imposed on everyone within the city’s jurisdiction who uses or benefits from someone else's use of the streets. Of course, a mileage-based road fee would make more cents than a 60 cents per delivery charge, though the latter probably is easier and cheaper to administer.
I return to the questions I posed on Monday, and answer once again. So is it a fee? Is it a tax? It’s a fee. Does it make sense? No, it still makes no sense.
Monday, January 13, 2020
Once again, somehow reader Morris found another interesting story and shared it with me. I struggle to describe the subject of the story because the headline, “Delivery Tax Could Help Fix Potholes” suggests what’s being considered is a tax, and yet the subheadline, “Ald. Dodd's proposal imposes 60 cent fee on third-party deliveries like Uber Eats” suggests what’s being considered is a fee. Both words are used throughout the story to describe the proposal. Wow. Of course, there is no link in the story to the actual proposal, nor can I find it. If I could, perhaps it would clarify whether Alderwoman Nikiya Dodd is proposing a tax or a fee. I found another story, again without a link to the text of the legislation, but also in which the proposed exaction is described as a fee and as a tax. I found yet another story, again without a link to the legislative text, but describing the proposed amount as a fee. The portions of the legislation quoted in the stories don’t answer the question.
The proposal is to require third-party delivery services to pay 60 cents per order, and to use the revenue to fund street maintenance and public transportation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Whether it is a tax or a fee, why impose the burden of fixing the streets on only some of the people who use the streets? The answer seems to be the proponents’ description of third-party delivery services as a “fast growing market segment,” but there’s no mention of what percentage of miles driven on Milwaukee’s streets are attributable to third-party delivery services.
Milwaukee’s City Attorney, according to this article, has concluded that the proposed exaction is not enforceable as currently configured. The same article reports that a state senator who is running for mayor of the city disagrees. A deputy city attorney explained, “Because we do not have independent taxing authority, we rely on state enabling legislation. We can charge a fee that matches the cost of the service. For example, we are authorized by the State of Wisconsin to license taxis. That is the difference between a tax and a fee, a tax is raising revenue, a fee is paying for a service.” Well, both taxes and fees raise revenue. The difference is the nexus between how the fee or tax is measured and how the revenue is expended. The opinion from the City Attorney explains, “The proposed ordinance is not legal and enforceable because the municipal service fee is likely to be characterized as a tax requiring state legislative authorization.” If it is held to be a tax, then it’s not a municipal service fee, it’s a municipal service tax. The City Attorney helped clarify the problem by noting that by subjecting only third-party delivery services and not all delivery services to the charge, the proposal is an attempt to enact a tax. Perhaps a simple explanation is that requiring some, but not all, users of the street to pay an additional amount to maintain the streets is equivalent to imposing a tax, whereas requiring all users of streets to pay for the use would be the imposition of a fee.
The mayoral candidate who disagrees simply stated, “We have the power to make a decision on this period. I am here today to share a way that we can gather a little revenue.” Pointing out that the proposal would raise revenue does nothing to provide any deep analysis of the difference between a tax and a fee, and the authority of the city to enact one or another.
As of this writing, no decision has been made by the city’s Common Council’s Public Works Committee or by the Council. The chair of the committee noted that “the file, which contains the legislation text and any associated documents, lacked much detail.” Isn’t that too often the problem with legislative proposals and many other things? Worse, the only documents in the file were objections to the proposal. Alderwoman Dodd replied, ““I’m sorry that the file doesn’t have all that you would like to see, but if you do a Google search you would find a lot.” My google search for the text of the legislation failed.
Interestingly, when asked how she came up with 60 cents rather than another amount, a supporter of the proposal said “it was based on fees in other cities and states.” Yet when asked about the proposal in a follow-up, that supporter and another “acknowledged they did not know of any cities with food delivery fees.” Yes, details matter.
So is it a fee? Is it a tax? I don’t know. Does it make sense? No, no matter what it is.
Friday, January 10, 2020
Similar misusages of precision terminology abound in articles, discussion board postings, student exam responses, newspapers, and all other sorts of communication media. Too often, one sees sentences such as "The IRS held that . . . "
* * * * *
One of the things that might contribute to the imprecise transposition of terminology that has negative effects is the message that I received years ago in an English literature class. It is a message that I think is being repeated throughout the years and throughout education systems. I was told, “Aside from common words such as articles and prepositions, don’t use the same word more than once, especially on the same page. Buy a thesaurus.” That might be good advice for a novelist or poet, but it is atrocious advice for those who write in technical areas. Lawyers, engineers, physicians, scientists, actuaries, accountants, and those in other technically-focused professions can create confusing and even dangerous if not fatal errors when they use different words to mean the same thing. * * * * *
My rejection of imprecision, by students and by others, at times has been derided as picky or worse. But I usually quiet the complaints by asking if people want neurosurgeons operating on them, their children, or their parents to be imprecise. I wonder if people want engineers building bridges to be imprecise. I ask whether the folks making pet food, medicines, and other products should be imprecise. * * * * *
So it was no surprise to me when reader Morris directed my attention to a recent article titled, “Tax Deductions: Is College Tuition Tax Deductible?”, and pointed out a serious error. In the article, Amanda Dixon correctly noted that “The deduction for tuition and fees is not available for the 2019 tax year.” She then repeated that observation, stating, “The deduction for college tuition and fees is no longer available.” She followed that sentence with this one: “However, you can still help yourself with college expenses through other deductions, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.” Whoa! As reader Morris commented to me, “The AOTC and LLC are tax credits not deductions.” He gets an A. Dixon does not. Credits reduce tax liability, whereas deductions reduce taxable income.
In Credit? Deduction? Federal? State? Precision MattersI wrote:
One of the core principles that students need to learn in a basic federal income tax course is the difference between a deduction and a credit. Deductions are subtracting in computing taxable income. Credits are subtracted in computing tax. A one-dollar credit reduces tax by one dollar. A one-dollar deduction reduces taxable income by one dollar, ignoring limitations, floors, ceilings, and other complexities, and a one-dollar reduction in taxable income reduces tax by something between a penny and perhaps 40 cents. In other words, in most cases, credits are more valuable than deductions.Indeed.
* * * * *
Precision matters. Lack of precision causes misunderstandings in communication, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Lack of precision causes engineering defects, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Lack of precision causes medical misdiagnoses, which can lead to all sorts of problems. In other words, to the chagrin of those who detest details and want to live in the world of sound bites and 140-character tweets, lack of precision leads to all sorts of problems.
Note: The Dixon article on which I commented was written before Pub. L. 116-94 extended the termination date of the deduction of tuition and fees. Pub. L. 116-94 became law in late December 2019. So the statement, "The deduction for tuition and fees is not available for the 2019 tax year" now is incorrect. The Dixon article now carries a date of 23 Jan 2020, almost two weeks *after* the preceding commentary was published. It still contains the statement, "The deduction for tuition and fees is not available for the 2019 tax year." The description of the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit as "other deductions" also remains in the 23 Jan 2020 version of the article.
Wednesday, January 08, 2020
Reader Morris is keenly aware of my efforts to encourage people to use the two terms, tax and fee, correctly, so when he spotted this article he sent me a link with a question. As soon as I looked at the headline, “Myrtle Beach rejects near-deal with Horry Co. on tax fees over attorney costs,” and read the article, I understood why reader Morris had posed his inquiry to me. In addition to “tax fee” in the headline, the term appeared in the article three times, along with two uses of “hospitality tax.”
Reader Morris had asked, “Is 'tax fees' a proper description in this article?” My answer is, “No.”
To answer the question presented to me by reader Morris, I did a bit of research. According to the City of Myrtle Beach web site, the city imposes a “hospitality tax” of 2 percent on food and beverages prepared or modified before consumption, a “hospitality tax” of 3 percent on accommodations for transients, and a “hospitality fee” of 1 percent on paid admissions to amusements. The website refers to these three exactions as “The Hospitality Tax/Fee” and describes it as “a city tax or fee that everyone who eats in a restaurant, rents a room for a week or two, goes to a show or plays golf in North Myrtle Beach will pay.”
It's not a “tax or fee.” It’s not a “tax fee.” It’s not a tax/fee.” It consists of three separate exactions, two of which are taxes and one of which is a fee. Understandably, when wanting to mention all three in as few words as possible, the temptation is to use tax/fee, which is somewhat acceptable, or “tax fee,” which is beyond oxymoronic. A better term would be “hospitality exaction.”
Of course, another question quickly pops up. Why are the exactions on food and lodging called a “tax” but the exaction on amusements called a “fee”? As best as I can figure out, it reflects what the state of South Carolina permits localities to tax and what they are permitted to subject to a fee. Why the state makes that distinction and how it has decided which items or activities localities are permitted to subject to one or the other is something I haven’t been able to determine. My guess is that it involves politics and public relations.
Monday, January 06, 2020
Recently, a reader pointed out to me that during 2019, more states enacted special fees for vehicles that do not use liquid fuels, in an attempt to make up for the revenue loss caused by the fact that owners of these vehicles do not pay gasoline or diesel fuel taxes. Even though I consider these fees to be stop-gap measures that buy time for legislators to buckle down and deal with the entire infrastructure funding problem, I do have concerns about these fees despite their temporary nature. At least, I hope that these fees are temporary.
The fees vary widely, and in some instances take into account the attributes of the vehicle and in other instances don’t. A list of the fees in the states that have enacted them has been provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fees range from as low as $10 to as high as $300, though most of the fees are under $100. Some states assess different fees depending on whether the vehicle is a plug-in, a hybrid, or battery-only, and at least one state differentiates between commercial and non-commercial vehicles. Only one state adjusts the fee to reflect weight differences, but only in terms of vehicles over or under one set weight.
One concern I have about these fees is the lack of differentiation in terms of weight. At least theoretically, when dealing with liquid fuel taxes, heavier vehicles that do more damage to roads also use more fuel and thus their owners pay more in fuel taxes. That outcome is missing with these zero-emission vehicle fees, and even the state that separates vehicles into two weight classes for purposes of the fee doesn’t come close to the sort of granularity that is justifiable. The easy solution is to set the fee equal to a specified dollar (or cent) amount multiplied by the vehicle’s weight, which the state knows because it is included as part of the general vehicle registration process.
Another concern I have about these fees is that they pretty much fail to make up for the lost fuel tax revenue. According to the latest Department of Transportation information I can find, the average American driver drives roughly 13,500 miles per year. As of 2016, according to Department of Transportation information, the average passenger vehicle had a fuel efficiency of 16 kmpl, or 37 miles per gallon. The average driver, therefore, driving the average passenger vehicle, purchases 365 gallons of fuel each year. According to the latest information I could find, fuel taxes average 29 cents per gallon, with a wide variation among states and some variation between gasoline and diesel. Thus, on average, a driver who drives the average 13,500 miles annually while getting 37 miles per gallon would pay, on average, $106 in fuel taxes. Are states making up the lost revenue? It depends on the numbers. Colorado, for example, with a 22 cents per gallon gasoline tax, loses $80 when that average driver switches to a zero-emission vehicle, but its fee for that vehicle is only $50. On the other hand, Georgia, with a 31.59 cents per gallon gasoline tax, loses $115 when that average driver switches to a zero-emission vehicle, yet is fee for that vehicle is $200. Perhaps drivers of these vehicles in Georgia aren’t too happy with this situation, though I suppose those who drive more miles than average are less unhappy than those who drive far fewer miles.
One of the blessings of the mileage-based road fee is that it does not try to impose a “one size fits all” fee, but adjusts the fee based on actual mileage and weight of the vehicle, both of which are factors in determining the extent to which the vehicle puts a burden on highway infrastructure. Perhaps as more people shift to vehicles that do not use liquid fuels, they will become increasingly dissatisfied with these “one size fits all” fees, and press for something far more rational. One reason I write so extensively about the mileage-based road fee is to help people understand why it makes more sense than the alternatives, and to help them dispel the doubts nurtured by the opponents of the mileage-based road fee.
Friday, January 03, 2020
Now, Lang has decided to retire from racing and has put up for sale a completely restored Mini Mac Chevy. His asking price is what raises the tax question. Someone who wants to acquire the Chevy can do so by paying $1.00 to Lang and making a $49,999 donation to Lang’s Safari West Foundation. The Foundation is a qualified section 501(c)(3) organization. If someone does this, what are the tax consequences?
When a person sells property, gain or loss is computed by comparing the person’s adjusted basis in the property with the amount realized. The amount realized is the selling price, with adjustments not relevant to this transaction. What is the selling price? It’s not just what the person receives, it is also what is paid on behalf of the person. Suppose X sells an item to Y, asking not that Y pay $100 to X but that Y pay $100 to X’s child C. X is treated as having received $100, and X’s gain or loss realized is computed using $100. X also is treated as having transferred $100 to C, which probably would be a gift. Had X directed Y to pay the $100 to B, a bank to which X owed money, the X’s amount realized still would be $100, and X would be treated as having paid $100 to the bank to repay the loan.
So in this instance, Lang would be treated as having sold the Chevy for $50,000, and using the $50,000 amount realized would compute gain or loss realized. I cannot compute that because I do not know Lang’s adjusted basis in the Chevy. Lang also would be treated as having made a $49,999 contribution to the Safari West Foundation, and whether it would be deductible would depend on other information, such as Lang’s adjusted gross income and other charitable contributions, that I do not have.
This process of taking what appears to be a direct transfer from the purchaser to the Foundation, or from Y to C, and splitting it into two transfers, purchaser to Lang to Foundation, or Y to X to C, is an example of substance over form. It is a basic federal income tax law doctrine. When I taught the basic federal income tax course, I brought this to the attention of the students early in the course, using an example in the textbook where an employer transfers a car to an employee’s spouse, along with other transfers direct to the employee, to persuade the employee not to leave for another employer. The value of the car is included in the employee’s compensation gross income, and the employee is treated as having made a gift of the car to the spouse.
This principle of substance over form is important. People unfamiliar with tax law think that if they “leave themselves out of the picture” they can avoid tax consequences. It doesn’t work that way, and sometimes hindsight would demonstrate that it would have been better to make the two transfers in actuality than to bypass the taxpayer. When planning, forgetting about the substance over form doctrine can be a big mistake.
Wednesday, January 01, 2020
The town of Chesterfield, in Saint Louis County, enacted a local sales tax. It did so because it is home to very large retail complexes. People shopping in Chesterfield include town residents, but most of the shoppers live elsewhere. In 1977, the Missouri legislature enacted a law requiring Chesterfield to share its local sales tax revenues with other municipalities and townships in St. Louis County. The formula for sharing the revenues is based on population. Chesterfield was incorporated as a town in 1988 and almost immediately challenged the law.
Defenders of the law point out that the municipalities getting a piece of the Chesterfield tax revenue generally lack space for large shopping centers, but “supply more shoppers” to Chesterfield. Opponents of the law argued that it violates the Missouri Constitution ban on “special laws.” The revenue sharing law, when first enacted, applied only to first class counties with populations of 400,000 or more. At the time, St. Louis County was the only county that fell within that definition. In 1991, as the population of St. Charles County approached 400,000, the legislature amended the law so that it applies to first class counties with populations of 900,000 or more. Supporters of the law argued that Chesterfield should have made that argument when it first challenged the law in the late 1980s.
The Missouri Supreme Court, upholding the decision of a Cole County judge, held that the law was not an impermissible special law. The court explained that the law was presumptively constitutional and was not a special law because its classification was supported by a rational basis. The court wrote, “Under rational basis review, this Court will uphold a statute if it finds a reasonably conceivable state of facts that provide a rational basis for the classifications.” The court determined that the “classification was supported by a rational basis because St. Louis County, unlike other counties in the state, has a large population, lacks a central city, has 90 separate municipalities within its borders, and has a large, unincorporated area.”
The mayor of one town supporting the law, because it receives a portion of Chesterfield’s tax revenues, explained that she was “delighted” by the decision, because “It’s support for sharing and regionalism. It just means that the cities that have more can share with the cities that don’t. We all shop regionally.”
I chose the title for this commentary after reading the story. I then decided to browse the comments. It is interesting to see how people, especially those not proficient in legal analysis, react to legal decisions. Most approach the issue from an economic or political perspective. Yes, the word “socialism” popped up. So did the words “greed” and “envy.”
What if, instead of permitting municipalities within the county impose sales taxes, the country enacted a sales tax and used the revenue to fund services within the country presently funded by the municipalities? Would that be just as offensive to those who oppose the revenue sharing law? Probably. It seems that the concept of sharing has become equated with the concept of socialism if the sharing is done at any level other than by an individual.
Interestingly, most taxes collected on a wide basis, such as federal and state income taxes, are shared disproportionally to the collection, in a manner similar to how the Chesterfield local sales tax revenue is shared. Yet the loudest complaints about this sort of tax revenue sharing seem to come from states and counties that end up receiving more than their populations contribute.
Ultimately, a non-sharing society ceases to be cohesive and degenerates into a free-for-all. There’s a reason the words society and socialism share the same etymological roots. They are derived from the Latin word societas, which means community, alliance, fellowship. Interestingly, the word society came into the English lexicon at about the time the oligarchic feudal system faded away under the illumination of the Enlightenment. People learned that cooperation in pursuit of the common good was more beneficial in the long run for individuals that was the free-for-all that too often characterized the Dark Ages. Sometimes lessons need to be relearned. Perhaps enough of that will happen before the end of this new year. That would make for a Happy New Year.
Monday, December 30, 2019
Knowing my interest in government reactions to people’s attempts to pay taxes with coins, when reader Morris spotted this story, he forwarded the link to me. He knows I’m going to write something about this one.
The story begins when Cynthia Lockett, who lives in Jackson Country, Missouri, received her 2019 real property tax assessment. The value of her land was increased by 135 percent, her house by somewhat less, so that her overall assessment rose 45 percent. It’s not clear whether that is a one-year change, though I think not, or an adjustment to reflect years of unadjusted assessments. It’s probably the latter, and probably similar to what is happening in many counties in Pennsylvania.
Lockett, though, considered the increase to be “unfair and illegal” as well as “egregious and ridiculous,” and made “multiple phone calls to multiple people at the country.” She filed an appeal. As of the time the story was written, her appeal had not yet been processed. Locket was frustrated at being ignored.
So Lockett decided to pay her real property taxes with nickels. She chose to submit nickels rolled in coin wrappers rather than merely in piles, because she wasn’t “trying to be a complete jerk.” To pay her bill she needed 1,419 rolls of nickels. How much do 1,419 rolls of nickels weigh? According to the article, 625 pounds. Wow.
Lockett’s plans made the news and came to the attention of the county’s Collections Department. Its director sent Lockett a letter. The director explained that country policy, as authorized by state law, is to refuse “large payments made using coins.” The reason? “Payments of this type would require a significant amount of staff time to process, which would result in substantial increases to wait times for other taxpayers. Accepting payments of this type would prevent us from providing adequate customer service to the many other taxpayers seeking assistance in making their payments.”
Lockett’s response to reporters was simple. She said, “I think it's interesting that they can find the time to respond to this, but they can't respond to the egregious bills and ridiculous assessments that they are sending us.”
But the catch is that the county’s Collections Department is separate from its Assessment Department. The employees of the Collections Department are powerless to deal with Lockett’s objections to the increased assessment, and they have no authority to deal with her assessment appeal.
According to the story, there may be a reason Lockett did not get responses from the Assessment Department. The county – though it is unclear what is meant by “the county” – requested access to the email account of the Board of Equalization staff, which does the assessments. The Assessment Department, in complying with that request, discovered 8,600 unread emails. Whether Lockett’s email was in that batch is unclear.
So what happened? Was the account password known to only one employee who died or became seriously ill? Were the employees newly hired and unaware of the email account? Who was in charge? What was happening in the office? These sorts of situations do nothing but supply fuel to the anti-tax and anti-government movements. It’s counterproductive.
As for Lockett, she has backed off her plans to pay with nickels, pans to pay the property tax by the deadline, but has no intention of paying by check. Will she use quarters? Half-dollars? Bitcoin? Gold bars? Time will tell.