Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tax Time, Part III: First Principles for Tax Expenditures in NYC + Beyond

New York City’s FY 2014 budget officially stands at nearly $74 billion. New York State’s FY 2014 budget clocks in at $136 billion. The true numbers, however, are much higher, as both the City and the State give away billions of dollars in so-called tax expenditures: the breaks that allow individuals, institutions, and corporations to avoid paying tax in the first place.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government sacrificed more than $1 trillion in tax revenue through 169 tax expenditures in FY 2012—roughly equivalent to the federal budget deficit that year and nearly 7 percent of GDP. The largest tax expenditure in the nation is the tax free status of employer-sponsored health care benefits ($184 billion), followed by retirement savings plans (401(k)) ($91 billion), and the mortgage interest deduction ($82 billion).

These tax expenditures inure largely to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans. As Robertson Williams of the Tax Policy Center reported in 2011, the top quintile receives nearly 65 percent of the value of tax expenditures (roughly equivalent to the share of total taxes paid), while the bottom quintile receives less than 4 percent of income from tax expenditures (but pays very little in federal income tax).

While arguments about the costs and benefits of these expenditures will continue to rage in Congress, we’re going to focus on New York City’s tax expenditures using the City and State’s annual tax expenditure reports.

New York City doles out over $6 billion in tax expenditures every year. Without throwing the whole system out (which is the preference of many economists), it is difficult to determine first principles for addressing these expenditures. However, I believe the following should guide policymakers in their efforts:

(1) That expenditures that support the poor are generally better than expenditures that support the well to do;
(2) That expenditures with provable outcomes are generally more supportable that expenditures with uncertain effects; and
(3) That expenditures with shorter time horizons are preferable to long-term expenditures (i.e. a 30-year abatement), given both the uncertainty of the future (i.e. what the “value” of the abatement will be) and the potential for additional experimentation (say, in how to structure an affordable housing situation)

Moreover, these expenditures must be made more transparent during the budget process itself, rather than simply as a report to be issued after the Fiscal Year ends. The public deserves to understand who benefits from abatements and what benefits are accruing to the public as a result. One way to do this is by launching a uniform development budget, which Bay State Brahmin will investigate further in a later post.

For now, let’s take a dive into NYC’s expenditures, starting with property tax abatements, then moving to business taxes, and sales/income tax breaks.


I. The Senior Citizen Homeowners' Exemption applies a sliding scale of property tax relief to homeowners earning less than $37,399. However, no asset limit exists, which is potentially problematic because seniors have often paid off the fixed costs that take up so much of a working individual’s income (education debt/housing cost/etc.). 

II. The Clergy Exemption is unique in that it can apply to property owned by a member of the clergy that is not the clergy’s primary residence. Indeed, it can even be an income generating property. No similar exemption exists for other leaders of non-profits. I believe the Clergy Exemption, standing alone, is unconstitutional.

III. The Commercial Expansion Program is designed to stimulate office space development in Manhattan North of 96th Street and all areas of the other four boroughs. It might be time to reexamine the geographic parameters, given that some neighborhoods in the boroughs today do not need this abatement to stimulate demand. Similarly, the Commercial Revitalization Program, which focuses on Lower Manhattan, should be reconsidered in light of Lower Manhattan’s immense growth/demand relative to other neighborhoods.

IV. Lower Manhattan Conversion: What if I told you that we spent $85 million in FY 2013 giving tax breaks to developers to convert non-residential buildings to residential use in some of the richest neighborhoods in the City (i.e. where residential development is already incredibly profitable). You’d say that was crazy. Well, color us crazy. We continue to do this in Lower Manhattan, though only for buildings that were issued permits prior to 2007 (thus, we should see this figure sunset over time).

V. The “Green Roof” Abatement only cost $100K in 2013 (which signals that it may not be well-known). Notably, it sunsets this year and the City Council should strongly consider pressing for renewal.

I. Insurance Corporations: One of two big ones (the other being Business and Investment Capital, which provided $320 million to only 32 corporations), insurance corporations don’t pay the General Business Tax in NYC. This costs the City about $365 million annually (they used to pay taxes, but the tax was eliminated in 1974, when New York City was desperate to hang on to whatever business it could). It’s not at all clear why this one industry (which is quite wealthy and dominated by a handful of multi-national corporations) should receive this benefit.

II. The Film Production Credit cost the City $33 million last year. These credits have been widely criticized nationwide. Ironically, NYC probably needs the tax credit least since the City itself is such an immense draw for shows/movies (the world recognizes our skyline, not Milwaukee’s…)

III. Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP): $32 million spent on helping firms relocate from outside NYC to locations north of 96th Street in Manhattan, Lower Manhattan, and the boroughs outside Manhattan. It is far from clear that Lower Manhattan (or other neighborhoods in the City, such as Downtown Brooklyn) need a special incentive program (indeed, it wasn’t part of the program until 2004).


I. Aviation Fuel Sold to Airlines: I wouldn’t have guessed this, but fuel sold to airlines at LGA and JFK is tax-free. Why? Certainly not to stimulate demand—the City’s airports have no vacant landing/takeoff slots. This giveaway to the airlines it cost you and me $117 million in 2013—the largest sales tax expenditure (as an aside, millions of New Yorkers continue to pay sales tax when they fill up at the pump). In addition, Airline Food and Drink for In-Flight Consumption is exempt (an additional $4 million).

II. Cable Television Service: Not only are we subsidizing the airlines, we are subsidizing the cable companies, to the tune of $101 million a year.

III. Credit for Unincorporated Business Tax Payments: This one gets a special star for incompetence, not because it is necessarily a bad credit, but because of how it is structured. The goal of the credit is not to “double tax” individuals who own/operate unincorporated businesses that pay the UBT (unincorporated business tax). Therefore, the credit lowers personal income tax (PIT) liability. It offers a 100% credit up to $42,000 in income, a sliding scale between 100%-23% up to $142,000 in income, and 23% for all income above $142,000.

So who benefits? You might think the dude earning $42,000 who gets the 100% credit. And, in a way, you are right (his PIT is eliminated completely). But really, you’d be wrong. Why? Because $97 million of the $126 million in benefits went to New Yorkers earning more than $1 million a year. Another $11 million went to folks earning between $500,000 and $1 million.

No comments:

Post a Comment