Republicans sold a tax bill that will not cut taxes for many Americans

Republicans sold a tax bill that will not cut taxes for many Americans
© Greg Nash

Sometimes it is almost impossible to determine who is telling the truth when a complex piece of legislation passes Congress. Case in point: the tax bill which has cleared Congress and just been signed by the president. The Trump administration claims that almost everyone in the country will get a tax cut under this bill. Democrats respond that this is primarily a tax cut for the rich and that the average taxpayer gets little if anything under the new law.

Let’s just look at one aspect of this bill. There are thousands and perhaps millions of people who live in high-tax suburbs who will lose a very significant amount of itemized deductions under this law. Lower amounts of itemized deductions often increase your tax liability. Telling people that they can now take a larger standard deduction rather than itemizing may not be enough. This is not a one-size-fits-all piece of legislation.

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I am willing to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt on the question of whether the reduction in business taxes will generate economic growth for our country, though perhaps not as much as they hope. However, to suggest that almost everyone will get a tax cut is not at all certain.

I decided to take a look at my own 2016 federal tax return to determine whether my taxes will go up or down next year. I am not wealthy, though I could be considered upper-middle class, just like lots of my neighbors in Northern Virginia. The bottom line is that capping itemized deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000 could cost me as much as $5,000 in taxes on my 2018 tax return.

The math is very straightforward. In 2016, I took itemized deductions totaling $27,000 for Virginia state income taxes, Alexandria real property taxes and Virginia personal property taxes on my family’s two cars. Capping these deductions at $10,000 means that I will lose $17,000 in state and local tax deductions. That’s real money, assuming that my marginal rate is about 30 percent.

The only way I would not wind up paying higher taxes is if my marginal tax rate is reduced by enough to offset my loss in deductions. It is almost impossible to determine what my marginal rate will be in 2018 by reading what has been published so far in the press and without knowing what other variables will occur in my total tax picture a year from now.

Since I am retired, there is nothing in the lower corporate and pass-through business tax rates that will reduce my bill. I have never resented paying my fair share of taxes so that I will have adequate police protection, so that my children and grandchildren could attend good public schools, and so that my country would be safe from attack by our enemies.

But I don’t appreciate being told I am going to get a tax cut when my taxes may increase. There are a lot of people in suburban America who could wind up with the same letdown feeling when next they calculate their taxes.

I will bet there are many people all over America who are, right now, taking a hard look at how much their itemized deductions will decrease when their state and local tax deductions are capped at $10,000 and that quite a few people in suburban communities pay more in state income taxes and local property taxes than I do. We should not be selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Let’s find out what this bill really means before we start telling the world that everyone’s taxes will be cut.

If I were a Republican congressman in a high-tax blue state who voted for this tax bill, I would want to spend some quality time with my favorite CPA before I went to town hall meetings, singing the praises of this legislation. I would want to know the real facts before I started taking some hard questions from the voters.

Martin Frost represented the 24th district of Texas in Congress from 1979 to 2005 as a Democrat. He is vice president of U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.