Tax bill passes final vote: What does it mean for you? Your 9 biggest questions answered

Tax bill passes final vote: What does it mean for you? Your 9 biggest questions answered
Tax calculator seeming handy right now? Don’t stress: Here’s what’s in the tax reform bill passed by House and Senate, when President Donald Trump could sign it and how your taxes could change. 88studio/Shutterstock
Tax calculator seeming handy right now? Don’t stress: Here’s what’s in the tax reform bill passed by House and Senate, when President Donald Trump could sign it and how your taxes could change. 88studio/Shutterstock

The House and Senate both voted to pass a final tax bill overhauling the United States code on Wednesday, following a procedural hiccup Tuesday. That reform is now headed to President Donald Trump’s desk and is expected to be signed into law imminently — though a technical dispute could delay the bill signing. Both chambers of Congress proceeded with passage despite polls suggesting that the tax plan is unpopular with a majority of Americans.

What’s in this final version? In some ways it is similar to the bills that passed the House and Senate earlier this year: The new tax plan reduces most individuals’ tax bills in the short term by doubling the standard deduction, which is what more than two-thirds of Americans use to lower their taxable income when they file their taxes. The bill permanently cuts statutory corporate taxes from 35% to 21%, does away with some deductions and places new limits on existing deductions for state and local taxes. The IRS expects the cuts to hit paychecks as early as February, when the new amounts start being withheld.

On one hand, advocates of the plan argue that popular opinion will shift once people get their hands on that cash. The latest version of the bill is more generous than the versions passed individually by the House and Senate: About 95% of American taxpayers will either pay the same amount or less next tax year under the final plan version, according to the Tax Policy Center.

But, as one senior advisor at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, the majority of Americans should be rightfully concerned about longer term damage the bill could do to the health care system and expected spending cuts triggered by new budget shortfalls — not to mention a new inflation index that makes the tax cuts less generous over time.

In fact, evidence suggests average benefits for Americans are very short-term. By 2027, all taxpayers in households making $75,000 or less would actually pay more under the bill than they do now, according to the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimates.

Two groups breathing a sigh of relief in the short term? People with high medical expenses and graduate students, both originally expected to lose out big under earlier bill versions including a repeal of deductions for high medical expenses and student loan interest. The House plan would also have made college tuition waivers taxable, a move many graduate students said would have left them paying thousands more in taxes each year. Neither of those worrisome provisions survived the reconciliation process, and the medical expense deduction got more generous — for two years, anyway: People will be able to deduct medical expenses that exceed 7.5% (down from 10%) of their adjusted gross income for the 2017 and 2018 tax years.

But unfortunately for students, similarly concerning ideas live on in another bill, an overhaul to the higher education system recently introduced in Congress. And people receiving medical benefits through Medicare or Medicaid may also see cuts, while the higher standard deduction means itemized deductions in general will be less attractive — offsetting the value of that temporary medical expense deduction. Most importantly, by repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, this tax bill could cause health care premiums to rise.

The final version of the tax plan also attempted to win over critics with a more generous child tax credit: Families can now claim a $2,000 tax credit per child, up to $1,400 of which is refundable in the event that they don’t make much income. But parents of large families could still pay more by losing the personal exemption, which was $4,050 per person in 2017.

Finally, critics point out that the bill seems to benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class, with the largest percentage gains going to the wealthiest 95% to 99% in the short term — and richest 0.1% in the long term — according to the latest analysis from the Tax Policy Center. As you can see in the below chart, the biggest changes in after-tax income skew to the highest earning groups, with the bottom 40% of earners actually paying more by 2027.

The wealthiest households will see the largest gains under the new tax code, according to the bi-partisan Tax Policy Center.
The wealthiest households will see the largest gains under the new tax code, according to the bi-partisan Tax Policy Center. Mic /Tax Policy Center

In the last moments of debate in the House on Wednesday — as Congress members prepared to revote on the measure, required by last-minute amendments — Democrats took one final opportunity to criticize the plan as favoring the wealthy. “This was a missed opportunity,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA). “They are borrowing $2.3 trillion for the purpose of cutting the top tax bracket from 39.6% to 37%, and calling that middle class tax relief.”

Now — assuming you are not in the top 1% — before you despair, get informed. There are, luckily, ways you can educate yourself on the new bill to get ahead of changes — and maybe even benefit. Here’s what to know about how the tax reform will affect you, with answers to your 9 biggest questions.

1. What is my new tax bracket?

What you’ll pay for the 2018 tax year depends on a host of factors, but about 95% of households are expected to get a cut for 2018, according to the TPC’s latest numbers. Much of that comes from increasing the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples.

The bill will also reduce the top rate paid by individuals making more than $500,000 and married households making more than $600,000 — from 39.6% to 37%. The other brackets also slightly lower, at 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, and 35%, and they kick in at new income amounts, as you can see in the below table of brackets for individuals.

The new tax plan will keep the same number of brackets, but tweaks them slightly.
The new tax plan will keep the same number of brackets, but tweaks them slightly. Mic /House.gov

2. What is the best tax calculator to use?

Your new tax burden depends on a number of factors, including how much money you make, how you earn it (e.g., as a freelance contractor or a full-time employee with benefits), how many children you have and whether you live in a high-tax state, since the bill would cap deductions for state and local taxes to just $10,000, whether property, income or sales tax.

While you absolutely can get a rough idea of how your or your family might fare — by entering your income data in calculators from the Washington Post, the New York Times and MarketWatch — be forewarned that these tools leave out key details, deductions and other provisions that might apply to you and make your tax situation better or worse.

3. Who will pay more tax?

One of the problems with the bill? Millions of people will likely end up paying more in taxes, and that number will go up over time. Indeed, most of the the bill’s provisions aimed at individuals expire by 2027, meaning, again, that all families making less than $75,000 per year would pay more if those provisions aren’t extended, according to the JCT.

But who will actually pay more right away? The losers under the bill are spread out. Many are high earners in highly taxed states like New York and California, particularly those who own expensive homes. The accountants at H&R Block estimate that an individual in New York who makes more than $500,000 a year with no children and who owns their home would pay about $6,400 more in federal income taxes.

Yet over the long term, low- and middle-income Americans will pay more. The tax hikes on lower income folks mostly phase in over time because of a new, less-generous measure of inflation to calculate new benefits. That means that each year, tax cuts aimed at low-income workers like the earned income tax credit get less generous. Some low-income groups could see higher bills right away, too — like large families whose new child tax credits don’t make up for what they lose from the elimination of the personal exemption.

4. What will happen to my health care?

Some of the bill’s most powerful critics have been patient advocates in the health care community who are concerned about how the bill might affect people with high medical expenses.

The tax bill is expected to deal a blow to people shopping for health insurance next by repealing the ACA’s individual mandate — which has encouraged healthy people to sign up for plans — a change that health care economists worry will destabilize the insurance market. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the repeal will lead to a 10% increase in premiums relative to what they would cost under current law.

Perhaps the biggest concern among patient advocates has to do with Medicare and Medicaid, the two federal insurance programs meant for the elderly, disabled and low-income — and which will likely face automatic cuts thanks to PayGo rules. These parliamentary provisions were designed to keep spending under control, so an additional 4% in Medicare cuts could be triggered to make up for the nearly $1.5 trillion in lost tax revenue from the bill.

Those spending cuts could be averted, but only with the help of Democratic votes. The reason? PayGo can be waived if passed through a conventional bill, simply by adding a line to the text — but this tax plan was passed through budget reconciliation. That means that to waive PayGo, Congress would need to pass a new bill with a filibuster-proof vote, requiring bipartisan support.

5. Which tax deductions will I lose?

The tax bill was intended to pay for breaks on the corporate and individual tax rates by doing away with major tax deductions. This didn’t end up happening; as the New York Times’ Jim Tankersley noted, the bill ended up creating almost as many new deductions as it eliminated.

Several deductions you’ll lose going forward include a benefit for bike commuters and a provision aimed at employers who use expense deductions to finance corporate lunches. The bill will also suspend a tax deduction for moving expenses, stop allowing people paying alimony to deduct their payments, and get rid of a deduction for tax preparation expenses.

That said, odds are good that few of these tweaks will actually affect you, since the increase to the standard deduction is expected to reduce the number of itemizers from roughy 30% of taxpayers to roughly 6%.

6. What happens to my dreams of buying a home?

Some of the biggest tax hikes fall on homeowners, who lose a number of cherished deductions. In addition to a new cap on their state and local property tax deductions, home owners will also get a new cap on the mortgage interest tax deduction, and would lose the ability to write off property losses in any event where the president doesn’t declare a national disaster. Some homeowners might be able to cushion the blow by pre-paying next year’s property taxes now, when they can still claim a larger deduction — but notably you cannot prepay 2018 state income tax.

Alas, if you don’t own a home and your income is low, you may end up finding it harder still to find one to rent affordably.

According to the Novogradac & Company, an accounting firm, the new inflation measure introduced by the bill would make a low-income housing credit less attractive to home builders and renovators over time. Combined with the tax cut, the firm estimates that the new bill will “reduce the future supply of affordable rental housing by nearly 235,000 homes over 10 years.”

7. Will the corporate tax cuts create jobs?

A key point of contention is whether the bill’s corporate tax cuts will be able to create enough jobs and economic growth to offset some of the budget shortfalls created by the new cuts.

This is the central argument for tax cuts: that they “increase the base” by freeing up employers to funnel their newfound cash into raises and hiring. One of the last-minute swing votes, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that part of the reason she decided to back the bill was because she expected “more revenue for the government,” according to Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis.

Yet essentially no credible scores of the bill, including from right-leaning Tax Foundation and the Penn Wharton Budget Model — headed by a former GOP administration Treasury economist — back that assessment up, and they instead project shortfalls of nearly $500 billion to more than $2 trillion, respectively. And while the Tax Foundation estimates about 339,000 new jobs as a result of the cuts, other estimates fall short of that figure — and many economists question whether tax cuts stimulate hiring at all.

Though the marginal corporate tax rate is currently 35%, as Marketwatch reports, many companies in the S&P 500 pay far less than that, thanks to tax avoidance. Between 2008 and 2015, 92 publicly traded companies actually paid an effective corporate tax rate below 20%, according to a paper from the Institute for Policy Studies. And their median job growth? Negative 1%.

8. Who wins the most in the tax bill? And what is the “Corker kickback”?

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of this tax bill include heirs and heiresses whose inherited estates are between $5.49 and $10 million — and who will now be able to inherit a far greater portion of their fortunes tax-free.

The bill also creates a new break for the parents of children in private schools by allowing them to spend money saved in 529 college savings plans on non-college expenses: to attend a private high school, for example. CEOs are also expected to get a benefit, with the elimination of a 1993 provision that (unsuccessfully) tried to reign in executive pay.

Yet one of the bill’s most controversial new amendments is a feature first reported by the International Business Times that would likely directly benefit many high-earning members of Congress, as well as President Trump.

According to IBT’s report, a last-minute compromise created a new break for real estate companies that have few employees but large amounts of depreciable assets. Many of the companies that fit that profile are real estate investment firms. IBT estimates that 14 GOP senators will benefit from the provision, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the bill’s last Republican holdout. Forbes estimates that the president himself stands to net himself an extra $11 million each year from the change, based on the numbers in his 2005 tax return — the only return that’s publicly available.

One final beneficiary? Big banks, particularly Wells Fargo, according to a report from Goldman Sachs. The research paper estimates that big banks could see an average of 13% in earnings growth on the back of the tax cut, with the scandal-plagued Wells Fargo ironically seeing the biggest bump.

9. Can I take advantage of the tax changes?

There are a few ways to try to find benefits in the new tax plan. If you typically itemize deductions, it makes sense to frontload helpful actions like completing medical procedures and charitable deductions before 2018 — so you can take advantage of all the deductions that could get less valuable later. And you can also prepay 2018 state and local property tax, as Bloomberg’s Ben Stevenson notes. Tax writers inserted a provision that blocks people from prepaying next year’s state and local income tax, but not property tax.

If you’ve never itemized your taxes before, this is as good a year as any to consider it, since next year will make itemizing far less attractive thanks to the doubled standard deduction. Many financial planners are recommending increasing your charitable contributions before year-end. It is the holidays after all, but next year, the charitable deduction will also have less of a payoff. You might also consider itemizing if you’ve changed jobs this year, since the expenses from your move and job hunt might be deductible as well.

Here’s a list of less well-known deductions you might be able to claim.

That said, the easiest ways to benefit from the tax plan tend to avail the people who are already benefiting, a point Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz made in a tongue-in-cheek New York Times post, that suggests would-be filers “get lucky with the timing” of their inheritance or upgrade their private jets as ways to take advantage of the new system.

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