Hank  Adler

Yesterday, Dave Camp, the Chairman of the House of Representative’s Ways & Means Committee offered up an astounding 979 page tax reform act. Much of the proposal is individual related; much of the proposal is business related. Today, thoughts on the individual tax reform proposals.

There are some great elements in Mr. Camp's plan, but the impact on the economy, housing and education make the proposal as offered a non-starter. The elimination of the state and local tax deduction, which this author favors to the dismay of some of many, equalizes federal taxes for taxpayers in different states who itemize. Unfortunately, the number of individuals who would see a tax increase as the result of this change makes the idea politically very, very difficult.

This author has been writing and speaking in favor of the following parts of Mr. Camp's plan for more than a decade:

· The substitution of partial taxability of capital gains and dividends rather than a lower tax rate,

· the elimination of personal exemptions,

· the elimination of the state income tax deduction,

· the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, and

· the elimination of the roof on itemized deductions

These changes would result in taxpayers making a single, easy calculation of tax rather than the required current multiple calculations needed because of different tax rates for different types of income and the required calculation of the alternative minimum tax. These changes would make it possible for most Americans to prepare their own tax returns. (This becomes particularly important as Mr. Camp proposes to eliminate the deduction for tax preparation fees.) The totality of these changes can be made tax neutral by reducing tax rates, which Mr. Camp's three rate system attempts to do.

The elimination of a potpourri of tax credits that virtually no one understands (particularly those who theoretically are entitled to these credits) also makes great sense.

All good so far, however, there are far too many game misconduct penalties in Mr. Camp’s proposal. Some of his proposals would cause far too much harm to far too many taxpayers.

The lessening of the interest deduction limitation to interest on new mortgages to no more than $500,000 could simultaneously destroy the dream of home ownership for tens of millions of taxpayers while driving down the value of virtually every existing home in America. With a lid on the deductibility of interest on loans of more than $500,000, there would be a cascading down of reduced home values for all houses, not just homes with mortgages of $500,000 or more.

Home prices reflect both the ability of the buyer to qualify for the loan and the taxpayer’s monthly after tax monthly mortgage payment. With non-deductibility of a larger proportion of the monthly payment, the amount of income necessary to qualify for home loans would go up and the comfort for the homebuyers of the monthly after tax loan payment would go down. This could literally destroy a housing market that fuels the economy of the United States.

The most important itemized deduction in the internal Revenue Code is one everyone hopes they will never need and never use, but it represents a definition of fairness and social responsibility: the casualty loss deduction. Mr. Camp eliminates the casualty deduction. The casualty deduction provides a deduction for any uninsured casualty loss that exceeds ten percent of adjusted gross income. It is designed so that at the moment of personal tragedy (fire, storm, shipwreck, theft), where at the maximum, literally all could be lost, the taxpayer is not faced with the Internal Revenue Service demanding tax payments from assets that have been destroyed. This section in the Internal Revenue Code must be preserved.

The plan appears to be both a direct and indirect attack on education. The bill eliminates the deduction for student loan indebtedness, regardless of when the education loan was made. It no longer considers discharge of student loan indebtedness tax-free after certain public service activities. The bill repeals the exclusion from income of employer paid tuition. And in the oddest section of the entire proposal, Mr. Camp wants to place an excise tax on a portion of the investment income from certain private colleges. (This tax is estimated to be about $170 million per year and its result would be to move the $170 million from college building programs to the Federal government. How odd is that?)

Mr. Camp's plan eliminates both the deduction for and the income from alimony. While this change is perspective, the current law has been in place forever and seems to work. The very fact that the plan estimates that this would result in an additional $5.5 billion to the Treasury over the next ten years leads one to belief that this is an area to leave well enough alone.

Over time, commentators may be able to understand and report on the impact of the proposed plan on the comparative before and after amounts of federal taxes due by different categories of taxpayer. At this point, it is too early to comment thereon.

I love the proposals in Mr. Camp’s plan that make the preparation of a tax return something that can be done without the requirement to make more than a single calculation of tax. Simplicity is a very worthy goal. But, the changes to the home mortgage deduction, the elimination of the casualty loss provisions and the seeming attack on taxpayers who want to enhance their education and repay their student loans makes the bill as currently offered a non-starter. But credit to Mr. Camp for offering a comprehensive plan and after the next election, a competent Congress could find a pony in his effort.


Hank Adler

Hank Adler is an Assistant Professor at Chapman University.

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