National News

Saying You Want to Reform the Tax Code? Easy. Doing It? Less So.

Posted January 18, 2018 6:48 p.m. EST

ALBANY, N.Y. — It read like a maddening instruction manual for a do-it-yourself piece of furniture, with page after page of bare-bones guidance — and plenty of room for confusion.

If taxpayers and lawmakers were expecting that a new 37-page report would provide a definitive road map of how New York state might sidestep the effects of President Donald Trump’s new federal tax plan and its sharp reduction in the deductibility of state and local taxes, they instead got a view of just how complicated this is.

The report, released this week, laid out at least a half-dozen ways New York could rewrite its tax code, with no indication of which option legislators might pursue. There was a potpourri of progressive rates, wage credits and tax-withholding schemes, with officials cautioning that all the options would require further study. No bills have been drafted.

The possibilities included completely replacing the state income tax with an employer-side payroll tax; introducing a new progressive payroll tax in addition to the existing income tax, with tax credits to make up the difference; or designing a payroll tax only for wage earners above a certain income threshold — the taxpayers most likely to be hurt by the federal tax plan in the first place. Some versions would be mandatory. Others would be opt-in.

More than anything, the report illustrated how difficult it may be to turn academic theory into real policy, serving as a cautionary guide to other states contemplating similar options. And it underscored the political challenges that lie ahead for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, as he seeks to sell a new payroll tax that could slightly reduce workers’ wages, even though the net payout, after taxes, would remain the same.

“I am not familiar with any rewrite this substantial,” said David Friedfel, director of state studies at the New York-based Citizens Budget Commission. “On the personal income tax side, it’s the biggest one in memory. I think a lack of precedent is the best way to think about it.”

Even seasoned tax experts said they found the myriad possibilities daunting.

“One thing I was struck by in reading it is just how many complications come with the payroll tax option,” Brian Galle, a taxation law professor at Georgetown University, said.

Galle said the option he found the most feasible was a hybrid model that would preserve the existing state income tax system, but which would also require employers to pay a new payroll tax.

Under the old plan, an employee who earned $100,000 a year and paid $6,000 in state income taxes would then pay federal taxes on the remaining $94,000. Under the hybrid option, that employee’s gross pay might be reduced to $94,000, because the employer would pay $6,000 to the state in new payroll tax on their behalf. The employer could still deduct that payment from its federal tax liability under the new Republican plan.

The employee would still be responsible for paying state income tax on their $94,000 in earnings, but would receive a tax credit from the state to make up for it — ultimately bringing them back to the same take-home pay as before. State officials said employees’ take-home pay might even increase if the reduced wages knocked them into a lower income bracket. There are numerous reasons New York would want to retain some form of an income tax; keeping it in place would protect existing tax incentives, such as for organ donation or renewable energy initiatives, which could disappear if the income tax code were eliminated entirely, Galle said.

Legislators also need to wrestle with how the changes would affect people of different income levels, or people who earn their income through nonwage sources, such as investment returns.

Any one of the options could positively or negatively affect one group or another, although the extent of any impact is not yet clear, said Andrew Rein, who is leading a special committee studying the effect of the federal tax plan for the Citizens Budget Commission. “The breadth of options represent the complexity in addressing the challenging road the state is facing,” he said.

Conservative critics contend that the complexity could be frightening to corporations that might already be wary of the state’s high-tax reputation. “It’s so complicated, it would be repellent in its own right,” said E.J. McMahon, the founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.

McMahon also posited that many small businesses would be wary of any new tax platform, as Albany has a long-standing reputation of letting even temporary surcharges survive for decades past their intended purpose.

Beyond the logistical constraints, any attempts to change the tax code are also riddled with political uncertainty, even in a true blue state like New York. Reluctant Republicans in the Senate are already voicing displeasure about $1 billion worth of new taxes and fees that Cuomo says he needs to help fill a $4.4 billion budget deficit.

The governor’s push for tax reform — first articulated during his State of the State address and amplified this week during his annual budget presentation — is just the opening salvo in upcoming negotiations with the divided state Legislature, which would have to pass a raft of new tax laws between now and the beginning of the fiscal year on April 1.

And even Cuomo’s Democratic allies in the Assembly acknowledge that explaining the payroll tax idea to constituents — which could include reducing millions of workers’ gross pay in exchange for a break on state income tax — may be a challenge.

“We’re going to try over the next couple of months to educate people as to why this is a better choice,” said Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, who serves as that chamber’s speaker. And while he acknowledged there may be “unintended consequences,” Heastie added, “I think most people will be interested in it.” On Thursday, Cuomo and his surrogates began a public relations push to explain and sell the plan, framing it as a bold response to an “attack” from Washington, while also acknowledging it is a blueprint, and a complicated one at that. The state’s budget director, Robert Mujica, said in a public radio interview that he hoped the changes would actually “result in a simpler tax code.”

“It could result in less options in terms of different things you have to select,” he said, “but as you maintain the progressivity. And sure, people may have to, you know, file long forms by the time you’re done with this.”

Mujica added that the state has “some of the best tax lawyers in the country working with us” to rework the state’s tax code in a way that passes legal muster and minimizes the effect of the federal bill. “We’re going to do whatever we can to protect New Yorkers,” he said.

But Nicole Kaeding, an economist at the conservative nonprofit Tax Foundation, said she viewed the plan as “very much a thought experiment and not a solid policy proposal.”

“Because this is not something that’s been tried in the same sort of broad fashion,” she said, “there’s reason to be skeptical.”