Conflicting Policy From Trump: To Keep, and Remove, Tax Cut


Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, made his exit on Wednesday after speaking at a campaign event in Canton, Ohio.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A few hours after Donald J. Trump publicly backed away from a $1 trillion tax cut for small businesses, campaign aides on Thursday privately assured a leading small-business group that Mr. Trump in fact remained committed to the proposal — winning the group’s endorsement.

The campaign then told the Tax Foundation, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank it asked to price the plan, that Mr. Trump had indeed decided to eliminate the tax cut.

Call it the trillion-dollar lie: Both assertions cannot be true.

At issue is whether Mr. Trump’s plan would tax small businesses, partnerships and other “passthrough” entities at the same 15 percent rate as large corporations, as he proposed last year, or whether they would continue to pay individual income taxes, at rates as high as 33 percent.

The campaign’s conflicting accounts of its own proposal are particularly remarkable because Mr. Trump and his advisers have taken months to refine the details, which Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, unveiled in an economic policy speech on Thursday in New York.

In this case, however, telling two versions of the same story benefited the Trump campaign.

Dropping the tax cut was central to Mr. Trump’s optimistic claim that his plan would not increase the federal debt. But by simultaneously promising to keep the tax cut, the campaign won the support of the National Federation of Independent Business, an influential small-business lobbying group.

“We’re comfortable” that Mr. Trump is committed to preserving the tax break, Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the group, said Friday morning. “We have it directly from his campaign.”

The Tax Foundation was not so comfortable.

“There is a disconnect between the plan as understood by us and the plan as understood by the N.F.I.B.,” said Alan Cole, an economist at the foundation who worked on the cost estimate that Mr. Trump cited in his speech. “And I think your inquiry into this is probably a productive one.”

Steven Mnuchin, Mr. Trump’s finance chairman, said Friday that the campaign’s tax plan had not changed at any point on Thursday.

He said Mr. Trump was proposing to let any business pay the same low tax rate, 15 percent, on all income retained for business purposes. In effect, that would apply corporate tax rates to some passthrough income.

“The intent of the plan is that big and small businesses have tax relief,” he said.

He declined to comment on the conflicting accounts provided by the two groups.

There is much at stake in the details, both in tax dollars and in the politics of a tax-code overhaul. Passthrough businesses, which range from mom-and-pop shops to law firms and large real estate partnerships, have become increasingly common in recent decades and now produce more than half of all business income. Under current law, that income is passed through to the tax returns of the business owners, where it is taxed at the same rates as a worker’s wages.

Corporations generally pay a lower tax rate, but shareholders must also pay a second round of taxes on any corporate profits distributed as dividends.

Both Democrats and Republicans want to overhaul the corporate tax system, which combines a high headline rate with endless loopholes.

But the question of what to do about passthroughs has bedeviled those efforts. Democrats have resisted changes to small-business taxes because they have not wanted to lower the top income tax rates for individuals — the rates small businesses pay. Republicans have stood firmly against a tax overhaul for corporations only, worrying that leaving small-business taxes unchanged would look elitist.

That standoff has left intact a corporate tax code that both sides believe has put American companies at a global disadvantage.

Mr. Trump proposed last year to sharply reduce the corporate rate to 15 percent, from 35 percent, and to apply the same rate to passthrough income. Democrats sharply criticized that proposal as a giveaway to the owners of passthrough businesses, a group that includes many real estate developers like Mr. Trump, because they would not need to pay a second round of taxes on dividends. The Tax Foundation says it would cost the government about $1 trillion over 10 years.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump’s campaign initially indicated that it had decided to abandon that plan.

Mr. Trump took the stage at the Waldorf Astoria, before the members of the Economic Club of New York, and declared that his new tax plan would cost just $2.6 trillion, far less than the estimated $10 trillion price tag for the previous version of his plan.

That estimated cost came from the Tax Foundation, which performed an analysis based on the specific changes detailed by the Trump campaign, including the elimination of the small-business tax cut, the Tax Foundation’s Mr. Cole said.

The Trump campaign also issued a summary of the proposal that said Mr. Trump intended to reduce the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent, but made no mention of passthroughs.

Mr. Mozloom said his group, which strongly advocates a small-business cut, was surprised and reached out to the campaign. A few hours later, convinced by campaign aides that Mr. Trump intended to keep the tax break, the N.F.I.B. renewed its endorsement.

“We strongly support Mr. Trump’s proposal to create a single business tax rate that would create parity between small businesses and their larger competitors,” Juanita Duggan, the group’s president, said in the statement.

The Trump campaign also changed the language of its proposal to refer to the “business” tax rate rather than “corporate” tax rate.

But after learning about the endorsement Thursday afternoon, Mr. Cole of the Tax Foundation said that he spoke again to the campaign and that he was assured Mr. Trump still intended to eliminate the tax cut. The campaign told him it was making a more modest change in the plan that would reduce taxation for some small businesses.

The details of the Trump campaign’s plan remain unclear, as does the cost.

“There is a proposal and it’s in the process of being priced out and some details are being filled in,” said Larry Kudlow, an economic commentator and adviser to Mr. Trump. “If Mr. Trump becomes president and submits this legislation, it will all have to get worked through,” he said.

Kyle Pomerleau, the Tax Foundation’s director of federal projects, said he had hoped to publish an analysis of Mr. Trump’s plan on Friday, but it remained incomplete.

“As time goes on,” he said, “unfortunately things are becoming less clear.”

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17 September 2016 | 12:41 am – Source:


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