Sunday, March 25, 2012
Weekend Wall Street Journal editorial, Death Tax Defying: Estate Tax Repeal Gains Momentum in the States:
While Washington continues to debate what to do with the federal death tax—the top rate is now 35% and is scheduled to rise to 55% next year—states are starting to recognize that their high estate taxes are a good way to chase away wealth producers.
Last year Ohio abolished its estate tax, joining the 28 other states that do not impose such a tax at death. Indiana's legislature recently passed by big margins a bill to phase out its death tax by 2021, and Governor Mitch Daniels signed it this week. Heated debates are going on in Tennessee and Nebraska over the issue. Even in Oregon taxpayer groups are attempting to put an initiative on the November ballot to abolish the death tax, and polls show it could win.
The left has long been flummoxed by polls showing that roughly two of three Americans want this tax abolished. Why would Americans oppose a tax that politicians say is aimed at the top 1%?
The answer is that Americans instinctively understand that the tax is unfair. It punishes a lifetime of thrift and investment solely due to the accident of death. And it does so in a way that imposes another tax on income that in most cases has already been taxed once, or sometimes twice. ...
[E]ven on purely economic grounds, death taxes are spectacular failures as revenue raisers or a tool of income redistribution. This is because the people who are subject to these taxes often move across state borders to avoid paying. They do this so they can pass businesses and property to their children and grandchildren. ...
A November 2011 study of tax return data by economists Arthur Laffer and Wayne Winegarden [The Economic Consequences of Tennessee’s Gift and Estate Tax] shows how people avoid state death taxes. The study compared Florida and Tennessee high-income returns. Both states have no income tax, but Tennessee is one of only two states that imposes an estate and a gift tax. (Connecticut is the other.) ...
The authors point out that this year there is a $5 million exemption on the federal estate tax and gift tax (a once-in-a-lifetime wealth transfer for the living), but in Tennessee the exemption is a meager $13,000 for estates and gifts. With a gift and death-tax rate that reaches 9.5%, a Tennessean with a $5 million estate would pay $462,000 more estate tax than someone living in the 29 states with no such tax, such as Florida. Tennessee is a very expensive state to die in.
The Tennessee tax really does cause the rich to flee. The authors found that in 2010 Florida had nearly twice as many federal tax returns with taxable estates (per 100,000 population) as did Tennessee. The average estate is also larger in Florida—$7.4 million versus $4.4 million in Tennessee.
Here's the kicker: Because wealthy people avoiding the estate tax take their businesses and spending with them, the study concludes that "had Tennessee eliminated its gift and estate tax 10 years ago, Tennessee's economy would have been over 14% larger in 2010." They also find the estate tax cost Tennessee state and local governments over $7 billion in tax collections. Could there be a more self-defeating tax?
With Ohio and Indiana zeroing out their estate taxes and others likely to follow suit, the remaining high-rate states will have an increasingly hard time holding onto their mobile high-income citizens as they get older.