The State-Charity Disparity Under the 2017 Tax Law
12 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 2018
Date Written: September 21, 2018
Since December 2017, several states have enacted laws granting state tax credits for charitable contributions that go toward public education or public health. One purpose of these laws is to allow individuals to claim federal charitable contribution deductions for payments that simultaneously serve to reduce those individuals’ state tax liabilities and to support programs that state governments would otherwise fund. The strategy adopted by these states — if effective — would mitigate the impact of the $10,000 cap on individual state and local tax deductions imposed by the December 2017 tax law. The U.S. Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) have proposed, but not yet finalized, regulations aimed at shutting down that strategy.
The ongoing debate regarding state charitable credit programs and the proposed Treasury regulations raise a number of interesting legal questions — some of which may be addressed at subsequent stages of the rulemaking process, others of which will likely be resolved by litigation. Rather than trying to answer any of those questions, this Essay — an edited transcript of remarks at the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy-Missouri Department of Revenue 2018 Symposium on State & Local Taxation — focuses instead on a separate, though related, question, a question that is implicated by the charitable credit debate but that will linger long after any litigation is resolved. That is: Why should federal tax law allow more favorable treatment to charitable contributions than to state and local tax payments? What are the essential differences between non-governmental charities and sub-national governments, or between contributions and tax payments, that justify this lack of parity?
Ultimately, this Essay concludes that there is little justification for allowing a virtually unlimited charitable contribution deduction while capping the deduction for SALT. That conclusion gives rise to a critique of the December 2017 tax law, but also to a critique of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s tax plan, which would have capped the rate at which state and local tax payments could be deducted without applying the same cap to charitable contributions. The Essay ends with reflections on the long-term implications of the state charitable credit programs for tax policy and politics.
Keywords: state and local taxes, charitable contributions, itemized deductions, tax policy, tax politics
JEL Classification: K34
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation