Individuals, not business, will pay to shrink the debt

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 4:32 PM

Amid clashing ideas for fixing the federal budget, one idea has been mostly off-limits: higher corporate taxes.

WASHINGTON - As the presidential candidates sprint to the finish, it is time to talk about the inevitable winner:

Corporate America.

For all the talk by both sides of fixing the national debt by shrinking or eliminating tax deductions and credits, President Obama and Mitt Romney both propose cutting the nation's corporate tax rate. So the tax burdens of Minnesota's Fortune 500 companies, such as UnitedHealth Group, Target and Best Buy, stand to go down, not up.

And while the once-tax-exempt foreign income of American multinationals such as Medtronic and Cargill might soon be taxed, overall tax rate reductions should offset most of the new payments, economists say.

At least as far as the tax code is concerned, the weight of fixing the U.S. economy will fall heavily on individuals, not businesses.

"Nobody who understands how our tax system works thinks we're going to fix this by raising taxes on corporations," said Len Burman, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University and one of the country's leading authorities on tax reform. "I would be flabbergasted if there was an overall increase in corporate taxes [as a share of federal revenue]."

For starters, the U.S. corporate tax rate is the highest in the world at 35 percent. But that number is deceiving because myriad deductions and credits drive the tax bills to zero for many of the nation's biggest companies.

The need exists to even out the distribution of payments, Burman, a University of Minnesota graduate, explained. But conventional wisdom is that America's corporate tax rate must go down to allow the United States to prosper.

"Both sides [Republicans and Democrats] want to reduce the overall burden of the corporate sector for global competition," said Russell Price, a senior economist with Minneapolis-based Ameriprise Financial Inc. "It sounds good to say you want corporations to pay more until you get to the perverse effect of less job creation or income growth."

Even if the next president targeted corporations by removing all of their tax deductions and credits but kept their tax rate high, he would end up far short of the kind of money needed to address America's national debt, statistics show.

Congress and the president have roughly $6.6 trillion in deductions and credits to work with over the next five years, according to data assembled by the BlackRock Investment Institute from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the financial firm Morgan Stanley.

But the vast majority of those deductions and credits -- $4.5 trillion -- benefit individuals, not businesses. The most generous deduction lets employers write off contributions to workers' medical insurance and care. It totals more than $1 trillion from 2013 to 2017, OMB says.

One reason so many companies offer employee health insurance "is because it is a tax-favored form of compensation," said health care and tax expert Amy Monaghan of the University of Minnesota Law School. But it is essentially an individual benefit because the company can almost always deduct compensation in whatever form offered.

If employers' contributions to health insurance become taxable income for workers, Monaghan said, younger employees might choose to forgo the insurance, driving up costs for older workers who need health care coverage most.

The second- and third-largest federal tax write-offs, according to OMB, are mortgage interest on owner-occupied homes, worth more than $600 billion over the next five years, and contributions to 401(k) and similar retirement plans, worth roughly $429 billion from 2013 to 2017.

By comparison, the most valuable business tax break -- for accelerated depreciation of machinery and equipment -- comes to $375 billion. The tax break American multinationals get on foreign income is $216 billion, less than the $239 billion that will be written off for charitable contributions in the same period.

Burman and former U professor Joel Slemrod will soon publish a book titled "Taxes in America: What Everyone Needs to Know."

One bit of insight is that individuals, not corporations, will pay the most to fix the economy, no matter who is president.

"Politicians are trying really hard to not let people know how this is going to affect them," Burman said. "The fact of the matter is, to make significant cuts in spending you have to cut into things that are very, very popular."

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123

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