SALT deductibility does create serious issues, however. SALT was the largest itemized deduction, allowing itemizers to export a substantial portion of their burdens onto other Americans through the federal tax code. If I faced a 30percent federal marginal tax rate, paying $100 more in SALT lowers my federal tax bill by $30. It only costs me $70. Because that subsidy rises the more property is owned and the higher the income of the owner, the distortion overwhelmingly favors the richest, with the middle-class (who own less property, earn less, and face lower marginal tax rates) getting far smaller benefits, and non-itemizers getting no subsidy at all. In the process, it also subsidizes high state and local tax states at others’ expense.
Even when citizens do not feel they get their money’s worth from SALT-financed services, federal deductibility still subsidizes those governments, increasing their incentives to act in ways contrary to citizens’ interests. No wonder Democrats in high budget/high tax states are so strident in supporting deductibility. In the example above, federal income tax deductibility means that as long as a local citizen believes such spending provides more than 70 cents of value per dollar of spending, and they don’t take into account the added federal burdens they must bear from those similarly subsidized elsewhere, they think they gain. That encourages those governments to do more of what they should not do and more of what they do badly, not more of what their citizens find worth doing.
According to the Tax Foundation, just 13.7 percent of filers itemize their deductions — a prerequisite for deducting state and local taxes. Only at the top 10 percent of the income distribution do even a majority of taxpayers itemize. But among the top 1 percent of taxpayers, 92 percent do, and of course, their higher marginal tax rates make each deduction more valuable.
So it is these taxpayers whom the SALT deduction primarily benefits. According to Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, households in the top 0.1 percent of earners would receive an average benefit of about $150,000, while those in the middle would get closer to $15. Repealing the caps would cost about $350 billion by 2026, and an estimated 85 percent of that revenue would end up in the pockets of the richest 5 percent of Americans.
You can probably think of many better uses of taxpayer money than giving a tax break to the most affluent people in the most affluent parts of the most affluent states in the country. Unless, of course, you are someone who would benefit from a larger SALT deduction. As, I admit, I would.
The Biden administration will need practically every Democratic representative in Congress to vote for its proposed $2 trillion package of tax increases, which would be the largest in 54 years. To gain that support, the president may have to season his legislation with some SALT. The bill, which raises corporate taxes and boosts capital-gains levies, among other things, doesn’t restore the full federal deduction for state and local taxes that Donald Trump’s 2017 tax-cut bill capped.
Democrats in key high-tax blue states, including New York representative Tom Suozzi and New Jersey representative Josh Gottheimer, have been complaining that Trump’s tax bill placed an undue burden on their states’ residents. Some have vowed not to support any tax legislation unless it reinstates the full SALT deduction. The problem: federal data show that restoring the deduction would overwhelmingly profit rich taxpayers—and lawmakers in many blue states have already raised their own levies on the rich.
Subsequent data have shown that the SALT changes fall heavily on the rich, while the vast majority of taxpayers in high-tax states have benefited from the Trump cuts. An analysis of 2018 New York tax returns found that the number of residents subject to the higher rates of the Alternative Minimum Tax declined to just 0.2 percent of all returns, down from 5.9 percent in 2017. Thanks to the doubling of the standard deduction, the number of New Yorkers itemizing their deductions shrank by nearly two-thirds that year, according to an Empire Center report. A recent report by the left-of-center Brookings Institution found that 57 percent of the benefits of restoring a full SALT deduction would go to the top 1 percent of households, providing them with an average tax cut of $33,000.
The SALT provision of the 1862 tax disappeared with the income tax itself in 1872. It returned, on paper if not in practice, when the income tax was briefly revived in 1894 (before being struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1895 Pollock decision). But when the income tax returned for good in 1913, it brought the SALT deduction back for the long haul.
Over the decades, the deduction evolved to reflect its fiscal environment. When states began to rely on sales taxes, the deductibility of those levies in the federal system was made explicit. The introduction of the standard deduction in 1944 also reshaped the SALT deduction, reducing its scope dramatically (and shifting the distribution of its benefits up the income scale). Later revisions in the 1960s and 1970s modestly curbed the deduction, but it remained largely intact through the 1980s.
Its survival, however, did not reflect any sort of elite consensus that the deduction was a good idea. Indeed, policy experts were increasingly hostile to it. In earlier decades, the deduction had escaped careful scrutiny, perhaps because it was widely perceived to be necessary in a system marked by high marginal rates; many experts believed that absent the deduction, the combination of federal and state income taxes might have approached confiscatory levels.