Exploiting tax loopholes is a sport associated with rich people and their fancy accountants. State governments may have to start getting fancy, too.
Republican Senate and House negotiators in Washington agreed last week on a $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, or SALT. In high-tax states, that’s bad news. Personal taxes are poised to rise for 13 percent of New Yorkers and 11 percent of California and New Jersey residents, according to an analysis by left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, conducted after the bill’s final details were announced.
Financial planners and law professors to the rescue. It’s possible, they say, to concoct workarounds, like replacing income tax with payroll tax, and turning state tax into charitable donations. Far-fetched? Perhaps. But tax experts are already formulating ways to stop the feds from grabbing more take-home pay from Californians, New Yorkers and New Jerseyans while folks across America buy boats with the money they save.
“There are many hundreds of billions of dollars on the table over the next decade,” said David Kamin, a New York University School of Law professor. “There’s a lot of incentive for states to shift into forms of taxation that remain deductible.”
One tactic: Allow residents to make charitable gifts to the state instead of paying income tax.
That would involve legislators encouraging residents to donate to, say, New Jersey (insert quip here), instead of paying income taxes. The self-interested philanthropists who took up the state on the offer would receive a state income-tax credit for the full amount of their gift, which would qualify for a federal deduction.
Wealthy taxpayers already use a similar ploy in 18 states that offer at least partial tax credits in return for donations to nonprofits that grant tuition vouchers to private and religious schools. It especially appeals to affluent filers who pay the alternative minimum tax, which doesn’t allow them to claim deductions for state and local levies.
The charitable-gift gambit isn’t the only potential loophole. States could quit relying on income tax, paid by individuals, and switch to payroll taxes, levied on employers, according to a Dec. 7 report, “The Games People Play,” by a group of tax experts that includes Kamin and Shanske.
If employers pay the payroll tax and reduce employees’ salaries by the same amount, workers wouldn’t have to deduct anything and would wind up being paid the same amount. That would allow states to collect the same revenue while preserving individuals’ deductions on federal returns.
The tactics amount to a zero-sum game between state and federal governments. To the degree that statehouses succeed in clawing back part or all of their SALT deductions, federal tax collectors would miss out on revenue they’re depending on to fund the corporate tax cuts at the center of the overhaul plan.
“The question is,’’ Davis said, “how far are the states going to push the envelope?”