Candidates for public office say a great many things, and take a number of strong positions. Naturally, not all of the winner’s campaign positions will find their way into law after the election, but a look at a candidate’s various positions can be valuable in discerning which direction future legislative proposals might take.
A number of 2016 presidential candidates have proposed complete tax programs. These include Marco Rubio’s tax plan (co-authored with Sen. Mike Lee), Jeb Bush’s Reform and Growth Act, Ben Carson’s flat tax based on the biblical tithe, Ted Cruz’s Simple Flat Tax, and Donald Trump’s Tax Reform That Will Make America Great Again. Other candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, while not formulating sweeping reform plans, have addressed various tax issues during the campaign thus far.
“I don’t put much faith in getting any comprehensive proposals passed when they can’t even get the extenders passed in a timely manner,” said Roger Harris, president of Padgett Business Services. “First, they have to get elected, and second, they have to get their plan enacted. Those are two big leaps.”
“Having said that, it’s fair to say that most plans fall into two basic types,” he said. “Either they offer some sort of flat tax or a plan that would reduce the number of brackets and still keep some sort of progressive structure with some different rates. Both types of plan would reduce certain types of deductions. If they don’t do that, they get what every candidate says about every other candidate’s plan — that it blows a hole in the deficit.”
Although Hillary Clinton has not announced a comprehensive plan similar to the reform proposals of some of her would-be Republican opponents, she has spelled out a change in the way capital gains would be taxed for those earning $400,000 or more per year.
Currently, long-term capital gains (on investments held for more than one year) are taxed at a top rate of 20 percent, just over half of the top rate on income of 39.6 percent. The top rate on short-term capital gains, investments held for one year or less, is the same as the individual top rate of 39.6 percent. In addition, the Net Investment Income Tax takes another 3.8 percent of the investment income above certain thresholds for wealthier taxpayers.
Under Clinton’s plan, the top rate on capital gains would stay at 39.6 percent for a second year, and would then be lowered on a sliding scale over the next four years. In order to be taxed at the current favorable rate, an investor would have to hold the investment for six years. The plan is designed to counter what Clinton calls “quarterly capitalism.” Clinton has also said she would raise taxes on carried interest paid to investment managers in hedge funds and private equity firms. It is currently taxed at the capital gains rate.
Democratic contender Bernie Sanders would increase the NII to 10 percent, and has stated that he would raise taxes on dividends and capital gains. On the estate tax, Sanders would increase the top rate to 65 percent, and lower the estate tax exclusion to $3.5 million.
In July of this year, Sanders indicated that he would raise taxes on the wealthy: “Yes, we have to raise individual tax rates substantially higher than they are today because almost all of the new income is going to the top 1 percent. And yes, those folks and large corporations will have to pay under a Sanders administration more in taxes so that we can use that revenue to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, create the jobs we need, and make sure that every kid who has the ability is able to get a college education in America.”
Ben Carson has proposed phasing in a flat tax of 10 percent to 15 percent. He would eliminate the estate tax, and the Internal Revenue Service. “The IRS would be unneeded with a proportional flat tax system,” he said in May.
Donald Trump has criticized the flat tax as unfair to the poor. His comprehensive plan would consolidate the current seven tax brackets into four of 0, 10, 20 and 25 percent. He would lower the top rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, and would increase the standard deduction to $25,000 for singles and $50,000 for married filing jointly. The Alternative Minimum Tax and the NII would be eliminated, and carried interest would be taxed as ordinary income. Under the Trump plan, the top rate for long-term capital gains and qualified dividends would be 20 percent.
The corporate income tax rate would be reduced from 35 percent to 15 percent. The lower rate would make corporate inversions unnecessary, according to Trump. His plan would end tax deferral on overseas corporate income, and would include a one-time deemed repatriation tax of 10 percent on foreign profits (which would be charged whether or not the income was repatriated). It would tax pass-through entities at 15 percent, the same rate as corporations would pay, and would also eliminate the corporate AMT. And the Trump plan would eliminate the estate tax.
Marco Rubio introduced his plan as a Senate bill. It establishes three brackets of 15, 25 and 35 percent, with the top rate applicable to taxable income over $75,000 for single filers and $150,000 for joint filers. His plan eliminates all exemptions and deductions other than the charitable contribution deduction and a home mortgage interest deduction. The tax on capital gains and dividends would be reduced to zero, and the top corporate rate would be lowered to 25 percent. Rubio would also eliminate the estate tax.
Jeb Bush’s tax plan reduces the number of brackets from the current seven to three: 10 percent, 25 percent and 28 percent. Bush’s plan would eliminate the break on carried interest. His plan raises the standard deduction to $11,300 for single filers and $22,600 for joint filers. It eliminates the state and local tax deduction and limits all other itemized deductions, other than the charitable deduction, to 2 percent of adjusted gross income.
The Bush plan would also eliminate the AMT, the NII, the estate tax, the limitation on itemized deductions, and the personal exemption phase-outs.
Tom Wheelwright, CPA, founder and chief executive of accounting firm ProVision, says to look for similarities, rather than differences, in the candidates’ tax plans. “What do they have in common, because that is what is most likely to happen,” he suggested.
“Clearly, it looks like the carried interest rule is going to die, at least with respect to Wall Street,” he predicted. “The Democrats don’t like it, and half the Republicans also want to get rid of it.
“It was originally meant for real estate. If you did something for a company and instead of getting paid you got an interest in the company but only if certain things happened, you received nothing so there’s no taxable income. You’re getting paid not in future profit but in gain on the future sale of the company,” he explained. “In a typical real estate deal, the developer would go in and pay profits to the investors. Once they got their money back, the developer would start taking a bigger share of carried interest. When the property is sold, there’s capital gain to the developers.”
However, Wheelwright indicated, hedge fund managers have taken the concept and utilized it to their advantage, which is why it is now a target of reformers. “There will likely be a grandfather rule on carried interest,” he said. “We don’t know if that’s going to affect carried interest that already exists, or if it will only kick in after the effective date. If you have the chance to generate carried interest, it’s better to do it now.”
Another issue the candidates share positions on is in the corporate and international area, according to Wheelwright. “Several of the candidates have a ‘deemed repatriation,’ which would tax overseas income whether it’s brought back into the U.S. or not, but at a lower rate. That should tell people that it is likely to happen.”
“At the end of the day, any plan that’s ever going to be enacted has to meet three criteria,” said Harris. “It has to be simple, fair and not be a budget-buster.”
“The easiest of the criteria is that it be simpler than the one we have today,” he said. “That’s easy because it would be hard to come up with a system that would not be simpler than what we already have. After that, it has to be fair. That’s based on differing opinions of what is meant by fairness, and that will be more difficult to overcome.”
“Here’s the challenge in tax reform,” Harris said. “I’m willing to take away your deductions but I’m not willing to give up my deductions. Taxes touch everybody and they’re personal for everybody, and we’re all for taxes going down and being simpler. But whenever there’s change, someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose.”
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