The number of presidential candidates has been steadily winnowing down in recent weeks as they suffer defeats in the primaries and caucuses, and so too their tax plans have been falling by the wayside.
The tax attorneys at Withers Bergman have been keeping an eye on the various candidates’ tax plans, comparing the ones who are still left in the race for now.
“Generally each candidate that’s left has somewhat of a unique approach in many ways,” said Withers Bergman partner Patrick Cox. “For [Bernie] Sanders, it’s an across-the-board rate increase for the wealthy. It’s going to go up to around the 54 percent range, a significant increase from the 39.6 percent on ordinary income that currently exists. My general theme with respect to Sanders is sort of ‘soak the rich.’”
Sanders’ rival for the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton. “Her big marquee thing is the five-year holding period introduction of a sort of tiered holding period for capital gains,” said Cox.
On the Republican side, the leading candidate is Donald Trump. “Trump gets rid of the estate tax, which I think lowers rates generally on people,” said Cox. “When you score his plan, it ends up looking like it’s the most beneficial for the wealthy.”
Senator Ted Cruz’s tax plan is perhaps the most idiosyncratic. “Cruz changes everything, in that he introduces a business transfer tax,” said Cox. “It gets rid of the corporate income tax. Everyone is reducing the corporate income tax rate, except for Sanders, some modestly, some completely. But Cruz completely gets rid of it and replaces it with a business transfer tax. The other major thing about Cruz is that he gets rid of the personal portion of the payroll tax and introduces a flat tax for individual taxpayers.”
Bill Kambas, a partner and regional group leader for the personal income tax group at Withers Bergman, believes the Democratic candidates’ tax plans could add more complexity to the tax code.
“Looking at the Clinton Sanders side of things, what we’re seeing is maintenance of the complexity here in the U.S., if not increased complexity due to trying to carve out loopholes, or as Bernie Sanders is doing, creating numerous brackets well in excess of what we currently have,” he said. “One thing we’re hearing from potential investors who are considering moving to the U.S. or just making investments here is that they’re concerned about making moves due to the complexity in the tax code. That’s a variable that we always keep in mind.”
The Republicans, in contrast, are talking about reducing the complexity of the tax code. In Cruz’s case, he has called for abolishing the IRS and making the tax preparation process so simple that taxpayers could file their taxes on a postcard.
“The Trump and Cruz side of things has got the attraction of greatly simplifying the tax code, if not potentially being executed through a complete overhaul of the tax code,” said Kambas. “For example, both of them are saying, as is Sanders, they don’t like deferral. We have a whole bunch of tax rules relating to controlled foreign corporations that allow for deferral of income, or at least the deferral of some income. By getting rid of that, it significantly changes the face of tax policy and the way global corporations are going to operate here in the U.S.”
Taxation of flow-through entities could also change with some of the candidates. “Trump seems to be recommending a 15 percent tax on flow-through entities, which exists in other countries but has never existed here,” said Kambas. “Flow-through entities like partnerships have not been subject to income tax, but rather that tax is borne by the partners. Trump is essentially saying we’re going to tax all entities at this 15 percent rate. The distinction between having the corporate versus flow-through tax programs or regimes in the U.S. has led to a lot of complexity, both domestically as well as internationally. Having these blanket rules, while it has the benefit of simplicity, also will fundamentally change the landscape of choice of business entity and operational entities for both domestic and international clients.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich’s tax plan aims to lower the top tax rate for individuals from 39.6 to 28 percent, and cut long-term capital gains tax rates to 15 percent, eliminate the estate tax, lower the top business tax rates from 35 to 25 percent and double the research and development tax credit for small businesses, according to the Associated Press. Neither Cox nor Kampas has closely studied Kasich’s plan and couldn’t comment on it.
Both Clinton and Sanders are calling for taxes on financial trading. Sanders wants a 0.5 percent tax on stock trades, a 0.1 percent tax on bond trades, and a 0.005 percent tax on derivatives trades, while Clinton is calling for a tax only on high-frequency trading.
Cox argues Clinton’s plan would add to the complexity of capital gains taxation.
“In addition to the five different holding periods for capital gains, now you can hold it for a year and sell it, and you get the preferred capital gains rate,” said Cox. “Under her program, you are talking about holding it for two, three, four or five years to get the beneficial holding period. What are people going to do? They’re not going to sell their stock, and so there’s no tax. How much is that going to chill the sale of stock? Her proposal adds a whole other layer of complexity.”
He believes it would provide more work for tax attorneys like him along with accountants, people who work for banks and brokerage firms, and administrators who will need to keep track of all their clients’ different holding periods.
“The other thing to emphasize is that she’s got this 4.5 percent surtax on income over $5 million,” said Cox. “She also lowers the exempted amount for estates, so she rolls back those benefits for wealthy people and thereby increases estate taxation on wealthy people and raises the rate to 45 percent.”
Cox believes Senator Marco Rubio’s tax plan was the most balanced, even though Rubio dropped out of the race after losing the Florida primary to Trump. “It’s too bad,” he said. “Rubio seemed to be in the middle.”