The House of Representatives and the Senate passed different versions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Both versions of the tax reform bill would repeal the state and local tax deduction (SALT) for income and sales taxes. Although this repeal might hurt some Maryland taxpayers in the short-run, it should be a spur to create greater fiscal responsibility in Maryland. If so, this ultimately would benefit Maryland taxpayers and help grow the state’s economy.
“SALT” is the acronym referring to the deduction for individuals who itemize certain tax payments to state and local governments on their federal tax returns. SALT is essentially a wealth transfer from residents in states with relatively low tax rates to residents in states with relatively high tax rates. Additionally, because residents who live in states with relatively high tax rates benefit disproportionately more from the SALT deduction, they have less incentive than they otherwise would to hold their public officials accountable regarding tax and spending policies.
Many Maryland residents benefit from SALT because it allows them to pay less taxes. According to a Tax Foundation study, residents in Maryland receive the 5th highest SALT deduction as a percentage of adjusted gross income, behind residents in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California. But SALT encourages Maryland policymakers at the state and local levels to spend even more than they otherwise would absent the SALT deduction because many residents will not be as adversely impacted.
In this way, over time, the SALT deduction promotes more fiscal prolificacy, less accountability regarding government spending, and diminished economic growth. So while many Maryland residents may think they are better off because of SALT, the longer-term negative effects of SALT may slow economic growth, ultimately making those same residents worse off.
As I stated in a July 2017 blog, Maryland’s fiscal health, ranking 46th in the country in fiscal solvency in one study, remains poor. But the moral hazard of the SALT deduction only tends to exacerbate Maryland’s excessive spending problem. Regarding SALT, Jared Walczak of the Tax Foundation says:
The residents of some localities are willing to accept higher levels of taxation in exchange for greater government service provision; others prefer a smaller government which necessitates lower rates of taxation. Taxpayers may be supportive of increased levels of spending if part of the cost is borne by others; conversely, they may reduce expenditures if they believe that some of the benefit of that spending will be conferred on others. Federal subsidies thus place a thumb on the scale, distorting local decision-making.
Interestingly, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a November 2013 blog titled “Eliminate the Deduction for State and Local Taxes.” The CBO said: “The deduction for state and local taxes is effectively a federal subsidy to state and local governments; that means the federal government essentially pays a share of people’s state and local taxes. Therefore, the deduction indirectly finances spending by those governments at the expense of other uses of federal revenues.” The CBO also stated:
Another argument [against SALT] is that the deduction largely benefits wealthier localities, where many taxpayers itemize, are in the upper income tax brackets, and enjoy more abundant state and local government services. Because the value of an additional dollar of itemized deductions increases with the marginal tax rate (the percentage of an additional dollar of income from labor or capital that is paid in federal taxes), the deductions are worth more to taxpayers in higher income tax brackets than they are to those in lower income brackets.
If and when SALT is repealed, whether in whole or in part, the positive economic effects will not happen overnight. In fact, an October 2017 report published by The Heritage Foundation states that repealing SALT will only boost economic activity if it is also “accompanied by more efficient state tax-and-spending policies.” As of my January 2016 blog, Maryland had the 7th highest state and local tax burden in the United States.
Governor Larry Hogan has made it his mission to reform Maryland’s burdensome regulatory and tax climates, and he already has succeeded to some extent. A recent CNBC study, “America’s Top States for Business 2017,” found that Maryland moved up eleven spots from 36th to 25th, since Governor Hogan took office. However, more support is needed from the Maryland General Assembly for lowering tax rates and cutting spending in order to improve Maryland’s fiscal climate. If the SALT deduction is repealed, Maryland legislators will have a greater incentive to reduce excessive taxes and spending, stimulating economic growth in the long-run.