Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
There’s good news for grad students, at least.
After Doug Jones pulled off his upset in Alabama’s Senate race on Tuesday, the deadline for reconciling the Senate and House versions of the Republican tax bill acquired a sudden urgency. Republicans want to pass the bill, like, now, or as soon as Monday, in hopes of locking in one more Republican vote before Jones takes his seat. Details of the bill are beginning to emerge as leaders work to speed the legislation through conference.
Hasty tax deliberations are unlikely to soothe critics who say that both the House and Senate tax bills are riddled with basic errors and carveouts. The unintended consequences of some of the intentional measures could be profound—to say nothing of the costs of writing blunders into law.
Dramatically cutting the corporate tax rate will mean less revenue for spending on infrastructure, services, transit, and more. So in a first-order sense, the Republican tax bill will be a budget cut for every major metro area in the country (and beyond). Other elements of the tax bill could spell doom for specific places.
Some signs suggest that Republican conferees might be rethinking several of the bill’s more controversial features (but proceeding with others). Here is a rundown of key concerns and where they appear to stand in the negotiations.
This story will be updated as more findings emerge.
Private-activity bonds, used to build infrastructure and affordable housing, won’t change
The House version of the bill called to repeal the tax exemption for private-activity bonds, which governments use to finance all sorts of development. Cities and states issue (tax-exempt) bonds on behalf of developers to finance infrastructure, housing, and other heavy lifts. Striking the tax exemption for these municipal bonds could cut the development of hundreds of thousands of affordable-housing units over the next decade and undermine municipal growth.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the final bill will preserve the tax exemption for private-activity bonds. Other controversial elements affecting the tax status of medical expenses, student-loan interest, and graduate-school tuition were also dropped. (Grad students: chill out!)
Housing tax credits won’t change directly, but lower tax rates will affect their value
A change to municipal bonds would have affected the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which developers use to build and preserve affordable housing. That isn’t in the offing now. The tax status of the New Markets Tax Credit and the Historic Tax Credit are also unlikely to change in the final bill, according to a congressional aide.
One provision in the Senate tax bill could have undermined housing tax credits entirely: the corporate alternative minimum tax. Under current law, corporations pay either the corporate tax rate, minus whatever deductions or credits they can get, or the AMT—whichever is higher. Few companies ever pay the 20 percent AMT rate, because the 35 percent corporate rate is higher, even after housing or research tax credits.
That would change if the corporate tax rate and the AMT were both set at 20 percent. Companies who take any deductions would inevitably wind up paying the AMT, rendering credits worthless. Republicans realized their mistake and agreed today to repeal the corporate AMT.
But this fiasco stands as an example of just how rushed the GOP tax reform process has been. Another example comes in the form of an amendment that swaps housing tax credits for artists’ housing for housing tax credits for veterans—but inadvertently renders all artists’ housing built with credits retroactively ineligible for those credits. (The status of that amendment is unclear.) It would be generous to call the process messy.
In any event, a lower corporate tax rate will limit the appeal of housing tax credits. In fact, the prospect of tax reform has already lowered the value of LIHTCs. According to the office of Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, investors may pay $2 billion less for housing credits, resulting in 200,000 fewer affordable-housing units over the next decade.
The BEAT could break solar, wind, and housing credits
Senator Pat Roberts’s amendment to the Senate version of the tax bill introduced a brand new tax: the Base Erosion Anti-abuse Tax. The BEAT would impose a base tax liability for companies with affiliates overseas. It works a lot like an AMT, which means it would suffer from the same issues as an AMT under the new tax dispensation.
“The intent of that is perfectly understandable,” says Peter Lawrence, director of public policy and government relations for Novogradac and Company. “It attempts to prevent companies that have foreign operations from using existing tax law to evade corporate taxation. It acts like a global minimum tax. Unfortunately, the way it is drafted, it could adversely affect organizations that are either owned by foreign entities or U.S.-owned entities with significant foreign operations.”
Foreign companies or even U.S. companies that invest in tax credits might find themselves paying the BEAT instead of the base rate minus credits and deductions. That could hurt housing tax credits. It also might deter investment in solar and wind renewable energy.
It’s not clear yet whether the final tax bill will keep the BEAT, but Sen. John Thune has said that the conferees are working on it. Joel Cohn, partner at CohnReznick, tweeted a rumor that businesses may be able to offset their BEAT liability using tax credits.
State and local tax deductions are still a tax increase, even under a compromise plan
The state and local tax deduction allows taxpayers to deduct state and local property taxes plus either state and local income taxes or sales taxes. As CityLab’s Tanvi Misra explains, this deduction works primarily in favor of well-to-do areas in Democratic-leaning states, namely New York and California. That makes this deduction an opportunity for Republicans to really own the libs.
Scaling back the deduction would mean a tax increase for taxpayers living in high-tax places. Fairly or not, limiting the SALT subsidy would make it harder for state and local governments to raise revenues. As with the mortgage interest deduction, there’s a strong argument in favor of reforming this subsidy—but doing so to pay for tax cuts for the extremely wealthy isn’t it.
Republicans from New York and California are calling for a compromise. One possibility under discussion, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, would let taxpayers deduct state and local income taxes plus property taxes, but cap the deduction at $10,000. Another possibility would be less generous: Taxpayers could deduct either state and local income taxes or property taxes, and it would cap the amount at $10,000. (Taxpayers who paid less than that figure toward income or property taxes would simply reap a lesser benefit.)
Both the Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ran the numbers and determined that even the compromise would result in tax hikes for millions of Californians and New Yorkers. In California, for example, some 2.14 million taxpayers would see an increase under the proposed SALT compromise, compared with 2.36 million under the Senate version of the bill—a lot of people either way.
All of this is not to say that Californians and New Yorkers should never pay taxes—sorry, Californians and New Yorkers—but rather to note that these are states that pay a lot of federal taxes relative to their population. And as with so many things in the Republican tax reform plan, the sole purpose of the change appears to be to give a tax break to the very wealthy.
Nobody knows what happens next, or when
House Speaker Paul Ryan is so close to his victory lap on tax reform that stories are already circulating about his plans to drop the mic. But the tax bill is still far from certain. Senator Marco Rubio says that he will vote against the tax bill unless it expands the child tax credit. Senators Jeff Flake and Susan Collins are undecided and asking for concessions they may not get. Senator Bob Corker is likely a no. Senator Rand Paul is possibly a no. Right now, the GOP doesn’t have the votes to pass the bill, which gives any one of them power over the details. If the Republicans wait much longer, they’ll have one less vote within their razor-thin margin after the newly minted Democratic senator from Alabama takes office.
It wouldn’t be a complete shock if a massively unpopular tax bill demanded by an historically unpopular president failed to pass. But Republicans will push hard for it over the weekend anyway.