Tag: tax credits

IRS Illegally Expands Obamacare

To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of the new tax provisions, when combined with state decisionmaking and Interal Revenue Service rulemaking, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem.

Here’s the deal: The legislation’s §1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State.” The provision was supposed to be an incentive for states to create their own exchanges, but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchange, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where §1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting §1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.

This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance. After the IRS expanded §1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance.

Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress. The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of §1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have now filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it is neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention or the invention of civil servants. If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the Affordable Care Act, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.

This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decisionmaking, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

Halbig v. Sebelius will be heard by the D.C. Circuit on March 25 (the same day that the Supreme Court hears the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate cases).

The Perils of Publicly Funded “Private” Schools

We support getting publicly funded schools public accountability…. No exceptions, no excuses, no special treatment.

Thus spake John Johnson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, on the subject of a new bill his agency co-wrote with Republican legislators. Among other things, the bill would allow the DPI to kick private schools out of the state’s voucher program if it rates them perennial failures.

Here’s the thing: Way back in … August of 2013, (a.k.a., “this month”), the head of a state department of instruction was forced to resign because, while in that same post in another state, he had personally revised his department’s ranking of a school run by a major political donor. State officials and agencies, contrary to the implicit assumption of “accountability” mavens, are not all wise, objective, beneficent philosopher-kings. They are people–and organizations made up of people–who have political and personal vested interests that do not always align with those of the families they nominally serve.

Fortunately, over the course of human history, a system evolved which tends to align the interests of producers and consumers more effectively than any other. It is the free enterprise system, in which producers must compete for the privilege of serving each and every customer, and consumers have the freedom to easily choose from among many competing providers. Let schools do their best to serve families and let families choose their schools: let the chips fall where they may. Some schools will succeed, others will fail. Those that succeed, grow. Those that fail are prevented from continuing to ill-serve families. It is a system that works not simply in theory, but in practice, as I found when I surveyed the worldwide within-country research comparing alternative school systems. The least regulated, most market-like education systems most consistently outperform state school systems, such as we have in the United States.

Heritage Immigration Study and Government Spending

Conservative and libertarian scholars are clashing over the findings and political implications of the new Heritage Foundation immigration study. The study spans 92 pages and is jam-packed full of statistics and detailed calculations.

I’ll leave the immigration policy to my colleagues who are experts in that area. To me, the study provides a very useful exploration into how massive the American welfare state has become. Here are some highlights:

  • “There are over 80 of these [means-tested] programs which, at a cost of nearly $900 billion per year, provide cash, food, housing, medical, and other services to roughly 100 million low-income Americans.”
  • “The governmental system is highly redistributive … For example, in 2010, in the whole U.S. population, households with college-educated heads, on average, received $24,839 in government benefits while paying $54,089 in taxes … [and] households headed by persons without a high school degree, on average, received $46,582 in government benefits while paying only $11,469 in taxes.”
  • “Few lawmakers really understand the current size of government and the scope of redistribution. The fact that the average household gets $31,600 in government benefits each year is a shock.”

Total federal, state, and local government spending in 2010 was $5.4 trillion, or $44,932 per U.S. household. The figure of $31,600 in “benefits” is total spending less spending on public goods, interest, and government pensions.

A useful feature of the Heritage study is a breakdown of the $5.4 trillion in spending into six categories constructed by the authors. “Direct benefits” includes mainly Social Security and Medicare. “Pure public goods” includes programs such as defense and scientific research. “Population-based services” includes programs aimed at whole communities, such as police and highways. (Some of these also seem to be public goods). “Means-tested benefits” includes programs such as food stamps. Education includes both K-12 and college subsidies. “Interest and pensions” is the current costs of past spending, which includes servicing the debt and paying for government pensions. The chart shows spending in 2010.  

This spending breakdown is useful for thinking about the proper size of government. From a libertarian standpoint, governments ought to be spending only on public goods and population-based services, as a first cut. That would be $1.94 trillion, or just 36 percent of the current total of $5.4 trillion. As a percent of GDP in 2010, that would be spending of 14 percent, rather than current spending of 38 percent.

But some of the population-based services mentioned by the authors could be privatized, and spending on some of the public goods could be cut. So a good libertarian target might be less than 36 percent of current spending, or less than 14 percent of GDP.

The Heritage study is sparking a debate about what type of immigration reform the nation should have. But hopefully, it will also spur more discussion about the massive size of the American welfare state. Immigration is partly, or mainly, such a contentious issue because we have such a huge welfare state.

The study includes projections about how many trillions of dollars of government benefits will flow to immigrants and their children in the decades ahead. But conservatives and libertarians agree that we ought to cut trillions of dollars in benefits to immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.

So is there some common ground here? Can we work toward an immigration reform that cuts government dependency in general and downsizes the welfare state?

School Choice Survives Repeal Attempt in New Hampshire

Just moments ago, New Hampshire’s state senate rejected an attempt to repeal the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit law by a 13-11 vote*. The program grants tax credits to businesses worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that fund low- and middle-income students attending private or home schools. The program took effect on January 1 of this year but scholarships will not be distributed until the new school year in the fall.

The support of Senate Education Committee Chairwoman, Senator Nancy Stiles, was decisive in saving the program. Last year, Sen. Stiles had voted against the school choice proposal, but she decided to oppose the repeal because she believed “it would be irresponsible to overturn it without seeing whether the legislation made a positive difference.” She also noted that without having had the opportunity to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, the opponents of the school choice program want to “rescind a program, not based on its effectiveness, but on philosophical differences. I cannot support or be a part of this effort.”

The legislative battle does not end here, however, since the NH House also repealed the scholarship tax credit program in the House version of the budget. Budget negotiations between New Hampshire’s Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are expected to continue until about mid-June.

The law is also being challenged in court by the Americans for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU, who claim that the school choice program violates the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funding of private schools. Their argument is based on a false premise, which is why the courts have ultimately rejected it wherever it has been tried. A citizen’s money is her own until it reaches tax collector’s hand. A private donation therefore does not constitute “public funding” even if it qualifies for a tax credit or deduction. While impossible to predict the future, it is likely that the Granite State courts will rule in line with other states’ interpretations of the Blaine Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court’s understanding of tax credits.

*UPDATE: I originally reported that the vote was 14-10 to table the repeal bill. In fact, one state senator had mistakenly voted for the motion when he intended to vote against it and that was later corrected. The 13-11 vote was along party lines.

Pennsylvania’s Solyndra

Another government-subsidized solar energy company is headed to bankruptcy. The latest casualty is Flabeg Solar U.S. Corp, a subsidiary of a German company. Flabeg’s Pittsburgh plant has been shuttered and its employees laid off. 

In 2009, the Obama administration awarded Flabeg $10 million in federal green energy tax credits. Flabeg also reportedly received a $1 million federal grant. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the state of Pennsylvania and Allegheny County kicked in another “$9 million in job creation grants, loans and other financial aid.” 

Flabeg apparently never had a chance to use the tax credits because it was never profitable, but federal taxpayers will likely be out $1 million for the grant. State and local taxpayers are unlikely to be as fortunate. And while taxpayers lose when government places a bad bet, the broader economy also loses when politicians redirect capital toward less productive uses (in this case, completely unproductive). 

Flabeg’s demise is a reminder that it isn’t just the federal government that’s shoveling corporate welfare. Not only do state and local government subsidize commercial interests, but the handouts are often coordinated with the feds. With Uncle Sam putting money in the pot, state and local governments can find the temptation to participate in a press release announcing the creation of X number of jobs irresistible. 

Just ask former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (see here, here, and here). 

On a final note, the head of a Pennsylvania environmental group offered this reaction to the Flabeg news: 

The reason government steps into these cases is because they are too risky to get private capital…But as with private investments, some companies fail.

Yes, private investments do fail. But as I note in a paper on corporate welfare, “Businesses and venture capital firms make many mistakes as well, but their losses are private and not foisted involuntarily on taxpayers.” 

The Real Problem with Highly Regulated “School Choice”

A Fordham Institute paper released today seeks to answer the question: do private schools really refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs? Its authors tell us that “many proponents of private school choice… take [this] for granted,” citing two examples—one of them being the Cato Institute, whose Center for Educational Freedom I direct. The authors even cite a relevant commentary by former Cato policy analyst Adam Schaeffer.

The only problem is that the cited commentary says precisely the opposite. Describing Indiana’s voucher program, Schaeffer writes: “Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated [non-participating] schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate.” This captures Schaeffer’s concern as well as my own (which I expressed over a decade ago in the political economy journal Independent Review): We do not fear that private schools will refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. We know that they ultimately will participate, or be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts.

We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished. The Dutch enacted a heavily regulated nationwide voucher program nearly a century ago. Unsubsidized private schooling remains legal, but has been reduced to a statistical asterisk—now making up less than one percent of enrollment, compared to roughly 70 percent for subsidized private schools.

Our reason for concern over this pattern is also grounded in empirical evidence: it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. That is the consensus of the worldwide within-country research, which I reviewed and tabulated for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. The Fordham paper does not discuss this evidence.

Despite imputing to Cato scholars the exact opposite of the view we hold, the paper does include some interesting data. In particular, it offers a new corroboration that voucher programs are more heavily regulated than tax credit programs (a difference whose magnitude and statistical significance was previously established here). This will make it even harder for objective observers to cling to the notion that vouchers and credits are functionally equivalent.

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.