Tag: excise tax

Chesapeake Prosperity Sunk by Boat Tax

The reigning politicians in my home state of Maryland are somewhat boxed in by geography. Clearly they are smitten with high-tax policies: the Tax Foundation rates the state’s overall tax structure among the country’s most onerous, 42nd out of 50, and the trend lately has not been favorable, with lawmakers having raised taxes and fees 24 times in just the past couple of years, as the Maryland Public Policy Institute points out.

On the other hand, Maryland’s smallish size and attenuated shape poses a tricky problem: most of the state’s population lives just a short drive from other states, and choosing to shop or do business in one of those other states—maybe even switch one’s residence there—is far less disruptive than it is for most Californians. Virginia has lower gas and sales taxes, for example, while Delaware levies no sales tax at all. Politicos still hotly dispute how many high earners were driven away by a 2007-2010 special “millionaire’s tax,” but no one argues with a straight face that the number was zero. Business taxes in Maryland, as the Tax Foundation explains, are set up so as to fall relatively lightly on mature incumbent businesses and much more heavily on new startups; that probably does dissuade some established businesses from fleeing, but at the alarming cost of stifling the new kind.

Over the weekend the Capital Gazette of Annapolis ran a news story about how marinas and other shoreline businesses have been badly hit by Maryland’s decision to retain a stiff excise tax on boat ownership (five percent of value if kept in the state more than 90 days a year). Other big maritime Atlantic states such as Virginia, Delaware, and Florida all offer better deals. The results? Boat owners keep their vessels elsewhere, registrations have drooped, and docking, repair, supply, and restaurant businesses suffer, the Capital Gazette reports:

It’s hard to fathom Maryland, home to Annapolis, known as the “Sailing Capital of the World,” would be in the bottom half of the country in total sales for boats, engines, trailers and accessories.

Yet Maryland’s sales fell from $183 million in 2010 to $162 million in 2011, placing the state No. 26 in the nation. In 2008, that number was $248.5 million.

Even the revenue from the excise tax itself is way down, “from about $29.9 million to $15 million” since 2006, the newspaper adds.

It’s as if the lawmakers in Annapolis didn’t realize that boats are mobile. I wish someone could have explained that to them.

NYT: Attorneys General Advance “a Credible Theory for Eviscerating” ObamaCare

The New York Times‘ Kevin Sack reports on the legal challenge to ObamaCare’s individual mandate launched by 20 state attorneys general:

Some legal scholars, including some who normally lean to the left, believe the states have identified the law’s weak spot and devised a credible theory for eviscerating it…

Jonathan Turley, who teaches at George Washington University Law School, said that if forced to bet, he would predict that the courts would uphold the health care law. But Mr. Turley said that the federal government’s case was far from open-and-shut, and that he found the arguments against the mandate compelling.

“There are few cases in the history of the court system that have a more significant assertion of authority by the government,” said Mr. Turley, a civil libertarian who acknowledged being strange bedfellows with the conservative theorists behind the lawsuit. “This case, more than any other, may give the court sticker shock in terms of its impact on federalism.”

Supporters claim the individual mandate will pass muster with the Supreme Court because in the past the Court has declared that the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause authorizes Congress to regulate non-commercial activity that affects interstate commerce. Sack writes:

Lawyers for the government will contend that, because of the cost-shifting nature of health insurance, people who do not obtain coverage inevitably affect the pricing and availability of policies for everyone else. That, they will argue, is enough to satisfy the Supreme Court’s test.

But to [the attorneys’ general outside counsel David] Rivkin, the acceptance of that argument would herald an era without limits.

“Every decision you can make as a human being has an economic footprint — whether to procreate, whether to marry,” he said. “To say that is enough for your behavior to be regulated transforms the Commerce Clause into an infinitely capacious font of power, whose exercise is only restricted by the Bill of Rights.”

Sack’s article contains an inaccuracy.  He writes:

Congressional bill writers took steps to immunize the law against constitutional challenge…They labeled the penalty on those who do not obtain coverage an “excise tax,” because such taxes enjoy substantial constitutional protection.

In fact, the law uses the term “excise tax” several times, but never in reference to the penalty for violating the individual mandate.  It describes that penalty solely as a penalty.  (The law does refer to the penalty for violating the employer mandate as a tax, but not an excise tax.)

As my Cato colleague Randy Barnett explains, that means supporters cannot reasonably claim that the individual mandate’s penalty is a tax, because that’s not what Congress approved.  As Cato chairman Bob Levy explains, even if supporters do claim that penalty is a tax, it would be an unconstitutional tax, because it does not fit into any of the categories of taxes the Constitution authorizes Congress to impose.

The “substantial constitutional protections” afforded to excise taxes do not protect the individual mandate.

Meet the New Plan, Same as the Old Plan

Or it may even be worse.

This morning, President Obama released his latest health care blueprint, which he hopes will breathe life into his moribund effort to overhaul one-sixth of the U.S. economy.  The new blueprint is almost exactly the same as the House and Senate health care bills that the public have opposed since July.  It mostly just splits the difference between the two.

One new element, however, is the president’s proposal to impose a new type of government price control on health insurance premiums.  I explain here how those price controls are a veiled form of government rationing that helped sink the Clinton health plan.

If anything, those price controls make the president’s new plan even more bureaucratic and government-heavy.  The Senate bill would take an ill-advised stab at cost-control by imposing a tax on the highest-cost health plans.  That president proposes to pare back that excise tax and instead have a panel of federal bureaucrats cap the growth in health insurance premiums for all health plans.  Those new government powers could make it even harder for people to obtain the coverage and care that they need.

Why Do You Want to Tax ‘Cadillac’ Health Care Plans?

The battle is intensifying between Democratic leaders and their labor supporters over a proposal to tax higher premium employer-provided health care plans. The proposal, which is contained in the Senate Democrats’ health care bill and supported by President Obama, would add a 40% excise tax to any amount above $8,500 paid for an individual worker’s coverage, or above $23,000 for a worker’s family. Labor leaders claim that a quarter of unionized workers would be subject to the tax, and government analysts estimate that 22 percent of all workers would be subject to it in 10 years.

A reasonable policy argument can be made for taxing employer-provided health coverage (more on this anon). That argument is not the one that the media (uncritically) reports is the chief motivation for President Obama and Senate Democrats. According to the press, the president and Senate Democrats want the tax so as to disincentivize employers from buying more comprehensive and elaborate coverage for their workers, which would mean that insurers would pay less for workers’ care and thus  “lower the cost curve.” That thinking does not make for good public policy.

To be sure, the public worries about the rising cost of health care.  But that doesn’t mean that we should embrace any policy that lowers that cost; otherwise, we would simply outlaw surgery and cancer treatments. Instead, what people want is to pay no more than they have to for the health care they want. Put more carefully, people want greater efficiency in health care (that is, more bang for their buck), not a cap or threshold tax on the care they receive.

Higher-premium health coverage does not violate this demand for efficiency. A so-called “Cadillac” plan can be broadly comprehensive and elaborate, and still be efficient, while a “Yugo” plan can be horribly inefficient. Just as important, the purchaser of that coverage (the employer, acting in place of the worker) has plenty of motivation and opportunity to consider different levels of coverage at different prices from different providers that compete on efficiency (and other dimensions). If the employer selects an expensive plan as part of its workers’ compensation, what’s the policy issue?

Sharp readers will point out that there is a policy issue in that employer-provided health care is an untaxed benefit, whereas most other forms of compensation — especially wages — are taxed. This brings us to the “anon” from above: The different tax treatments distort worker compensation, resulting in workers receiving more health care benefits and less wages than they would if all forms of compensation were treated equally. But notice that this distortion occurs when any amount of employer-provided health care is untaxed, not just the amount over $8,500 per worker or $23,000 per family.

The distortion problem is seldom mentioned in press coverage of the “Cadillac” tax proposal, and when it is discussed, it’s portrayed as a minor justification for the tax, behind the chief justification of “bending the cost curve.” And it is the latter, bogus justification that President Obama, Senate Democrats, and the press seem to be focused on.

Obama’s Health Tax Conundrum

As President Obama is finding out, spending a trillion dollars on health care reform is easy; paying for it is a bit harder. 

Both the House and Senate versions contain huge tax increases.  But they take completely different approaches toward which taxes are hiked and who would pay them.  And, as President Obama discovered in yesterday’s contentious meeting with labor bosses, those differences will not be easy to resolve.

The Senate wants to slap a 40 percent excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” insurance plans, that is plans with an actuarial value of more than $8,500 for an individual and $23,000 for a family.  The tax technically falls on the insurance company that offers the plan, but there’s widespread recognition that insurers will merely pass that tax on to their customers in the form of still-higher premiums. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that initially about 19 percent of insurance plans would be subject to the tax, and union surveys suggest that it could hit as many as 25 percent of union workers.  Moreover, as inflation drives costs higher, more and more plans will be subject to the tax.  That is because the threshold for the tax is indexed to general inflation not medical inflation which runs higher. 

As today’s Washington Post editorial points out, economists and deficit hawks see this measure as one of the few cost-control provisions left in the bill.  Its goal is not just to raise some $150 billion in revenue over 10 years, but to discourage the type of “gold plated” insurance plans that encourage over utilization and drive up costs.  That is why the Obama administration has endorsed this approach.

However, as labor leaders made clear in yesterday’s meeting with the president, this middle-class tax hike is unacceptable.  AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has even threatened to retaliate at the polls against Democrats who vote for it.  In addition, 124 House Democrats have signed a letter opposing the “Cadillac tax.”  With just a three vote margin, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cannot afford to have any defections from tax opponents. 

The House, on the other hand, has gone with a “soak the rich” strategy, calling for a surtax on incomes of $500,000 or more a year.  But Democrats already plan to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire next year, raising income taxes for millions of Americans.  An income tax surtax on top of that would mean marginal tax rates of more than 50 percent in many states with devastating consequences for economic growth.  Moderate Democratic Senators like Ben Nelson (Neb.) and even liberals from states with high cost of living like Chuck Schumer (NY) are unlikely to go along with this tax.  And, in the Senate, Democrats can’t afford even a single “no” vote. 

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that a health care bill is inevitable.  But if the growing fight over taxes is any indication, inevitability is overrated.

What They Aren’t Telling You About the CBO Score

The CBO report that said the health care bill won’t raise deficits makes it clear that the Baucus bill’s reduction in future budget deficits comes not from controlling government spending or reducing health care costs, but because of a rapid escalation in tax revenues.

The bill imposes a 40 percent excise tax on health-insurance plans that offer benefits in excess of $8,000 for an individual plan and $21,000 for a family plan. Insurers would almost certainly pass this tax on to consumers via higher premiums. As inflation pushes insurance premiums higher in coming years, more and more middle-class families would find themselves caught up in the tax.

In fact, overall, the tax increases in the bill are more than double the amount of deficit reduction. This isn’t a health care efficiency bill or a cost containment bill. It is a tax and spend bill, pure and simple.