“A person earning $1 million or more a year will get a tax break that is 85 times larger than what a working family gets. Think about that for a minute: 85 times larger.”
Gov. Roy Cooper uttered those words during his brief noontime press conference on the compromise state budget plan heading to a vote this week in the N.C. House and Senate.
Cooper offered no details, and it’s not clear how he allocated various pieces of the tax package included in the 2017-19 budget plan.
What is clear is that Cooper’s remarks could not apply solely to the personal income tax changes scheduled to take effect in 2019.
Those two changes have two main components. First, the state’s flat tax rate drops from 5.499 percent to 5.25 percent. Second, the standard deduction increases from $17,500 to $20,000 for a married couple filing jointly.
Before diving into some numbers, a brief note on the governor’s rhetoric: Note the contrast between a “person” earning $1 million and a working “family.” It’s not the first time a North Carolina politician has made subtle distinctions between higher- and lower-income earners in a way that places the higher-income earners in a less favorable light. (For example, the late Democratic state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, complained in 2013 that “couples” earning $100,000 ought to pay more in taxes than “families” earning $30,000.)
Now, let’s turn to numbers. To keep comparisons simple, we are going to compare childless married couples at different levels of taxable income. We will consider the impact of the two changes cited above: the lower tax rate and the higher standard deduction.
(Yes, this analysis leaves out any tax deductions from gross income that favor higher-income earners. It also omits the tax deduction for children that favors those with lower incomes. If the mix of these deductions ends up supporting Cooper’s statement, it would help the debate if he made those factors clear.)
A married couple with taxable income of $1 million and the current standard deduction of $17,500, paying the current flat income tax rate of 5.499 percent, faces a state income tax bill of $54,027. Dropping the tax rate to 5.25 percent and increasing the standard deduction to $20,000, the tax bill drops to $51,450.
That’s a difference of $2,577. It’s a significant chunk of money, but it’s less than 4.8 percent of the couple’s overall tax bill. In other words, the couple’s tax bill under the new plan is roughly 95 percent of the bill paid under current tax rules.
To be 85 times larger — or 85 times as great — as the savings for “working families,” the working family’s tax savings would have to amount to roughly $30.
Here’s the problem. Working families see substantially larger savings under the new plan.
Remember that the increased standard deduction removes from the tax rolls any married couple earning up to $20,000. If the tax change saves them $30 or less, that’s only because the state cannot save them any more money. They are paying no income tax.
For the couple earning $20,000, the change drops their income tax bill from $137 to $0. That’s substantially more than $30. Yes, the $1 million couple’s tax break is nearly 19 times as large, but the change has wiped out the lower-income family’s income tax liability completely, by 100 percent, while the higher-income family sees a 5 percent cut from what it paid under the outgoing rates.
The dollar savings grow larger as income climbs. At $25,000, the bill drops from $412 to $262. That’s a $150 difference. The $1 million couple’s tax break is 17 times as large, but the lower-income couple has seen 36 percent of its income tax burden erased.
At $35,000, the tax bill drops from $962 to $787. That’s a $175 difference. The $1 million couple’s tax break is roughly 15 times as large, but this couple has seen 18 percent of its income tax burden erased.
At $45,000, the tax bill drops from $1,512 to $1,312. That’s a $200 difference. The $1 million couple’s tax break is roughly 13 times as large, but this couple has seen 13 percent of its income tax burden erased.
At $100,000, the tax bill drops from $4,536 to $4,200. That’s a $336 difference. The $1 million couple’s tax break is roughly eight times as large, but this couple has seen 7 percent of its income tax burden erased.
A pattern emerges. The higher the income, the higher the dollar amount of the savings. At the same time, the amount of tax burden reduced decreases as the income level rises.
Yes, higher-income earners will see more savings in actual dollars. They also pay far more in actual dollars now and will continue to do so under the changes.
To put the difference in terms that are similar to those Cooper employs, the $1 million couple’s state income tax burden ($51,450) is 12 times as great as the $100,000 couple, 39 times as great as the $45,000 couple, 65 times as great as the $35,000 couple, 196 times as great as the $25,000 couple, and 51,450 times as great as a lower-income couple that owes a single dollar in state income tax.
The governor might have data to support his claim. But no one should make the mistake of assuming that a couple (or even a single person) earning $1 million will reap 85 times as large a tax break as a “working family,” based solely on the changes in the state personal income tax.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.