Opinion: CJ Opinion

Cooper’s comments suggest he would abandon N.C. flat tax

Gov. Roy Cooper has issued a string of executive orders since the start of the pandemic last March. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
Gov. Roy Cooper has issued a string of executive orders since the start of the pandemic last March. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

Gov. Roy Cooper opposes tax cuts for North Carolinians earning more than $200,000 a year. Without saying so directly, the governor also stands against one of the most significant positive developments in N.C. tax policy during the past decade.

He seems to reject the flat tax.

Cooper’s response to last week’s state Senate budget plan featured criticism of senators’ tax proposals. The governor wants “tax cuts for those who need it, not tax breaks for corporations and people making more than $200,000 per year,” he said in a prepared statement June 21.

A cynic might read the governor’s words and conclude that Cooper is simply regurgitating familiar partisan lines. Sift through reports of recent N.C. state budget debates, and it’s easy to find Democrats’ frequent objections to tax cuts for “corporations and the rich.”

But let’s assume for now that the governor is expressing more than just a calculated pitch to his political base. Let’s assume that he legitimately opposes tax cuts targeting taxpayers with annual incomes of $200,000 or more.

If so, there’s a glaring flaw in his statement: Nothing within the Senate’s tax plan targets people earning more than $200,000.

Yes, taxpayers at that income level would enjoy tax cuts under the Senate plan. But those tax cuts would be based on policies applied to every other taxpayer who owes N.C. income tax. To single out taxpayers making more than $200,000 would require a change in the basic structure of North Carolina’s tax code.

It would mean ending the flat-rate income tax.

The Senate’s personal income tax proposal features three key elements: a rate reduction, a larger standard deduction, and an increase in the child tax deduction.

Among those three, the child tax deduction has absolutely no impact on taxpayers earning $200,000. Current law offers no per-child deduction for single taxpayers with more than $60,000 of income and married couples earning more than $120,000. The Senate would boost those limits to $70,000 for single taxpayers and $140,000 for married couples.

Taxpayers with $200,000 in income would see no change.

Next, there’s the standard deduction. It’s also called the zero tax bracket. The standard deduction refers to the amount of income exempt from state taxation. Any change in that deduction offers the same dollar amount of tax relief to every taxpayer who takes the deduction.

Current law allows a single taxpayer to deduct $10,750. A married couple can deduct twice as much: $21,500. The Senate wants to bump those numbers up to $12,750 and $25,500.

At the state’s current income tax rate, that would mean an additional $105 of tax relief for every taxpayer ($210 for married couples). Yes, taxpayers with $200,000 of income could take the higher standard deduction. But they reap no special benefit.

Any increase in the standard deduction has a larger proportional impact on the tax burden of lower-income earners. Senate leaders have estimated that their proposed standard deduction would remove 200,000 North Carolinians from the tax rolls. None of those taxpayers earns $200,000.

With no other changes, the higher standard deduction would drop the state income tax bill for a childless married couple with the median N.C. income of $54,000 from $1,706 to $1,496. That’s a 12% tax cut. In contrast, the childless couple with $200,000 would see its tax bill drop from $9,371 to $9,161 (a 2% cut.)

Under current law, the $200,000 couple owes 5.5 times as much tax as the $54,000 couple. The increased standard deduction would force the $200,000 couple to pay more than six times as much as the median-income couple.

Nothing about this change offers the $200,00 household any special break.

The final piece of the Senate’s income tax plan involves a rate cut. Senators would slice the current flat rate immediately from 5.25% to 4.99%. By 2026, the rate would drop to 3.99%.

Yes, taxpayers with $200,000 of income would see a rate cut — along with every other taxpayer. Yes, a rate cut means those with higher incomes would see a larger dollar amount of tax relief than those with lower incomes. But the combination of the higher standard deduction with the rate cut means lower-income earners would see a larger proportional impact on their tax burdens.

Looking at our two couples above, the $54,000 household would see its tax bill drop immediately to $1,422, a total cut of 17%. The $200,000 household would face a tax bill of $8,707, a total cut of 7%.

Add two kids to each household, and the gains for the median family would be much larger. Its current $2,000 per-child deduction would grow to $2,500. This means the $54,000 household’s tax bill would be $1,172. Since the $200,000 household enjoys no state child tax deduction, its bill would remain unchanged. Earning 3.7 times as much income as the median household, the $200,000 household would owe 7.4 times as much tax.

Yet the governor and his allies try to paint a different picture. They imply that the Senate plan offers special breaks for those earning $200,000 or more. Follow Cooper’s comments to their logical conclusion, and those earning more than $200,000 “deserve” to pay a higher income tax rate than everyone else.

If that’s what Cooper wants, then he rejects the flat tax. He ought to be up front about it. He ought to rebut years of scholarly research touting a flat tax’s benefits.

And he ought to explain why his system would be better than a Senate plan that offers tax relief to everyone.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.