Tax Day 2019: Did the GOP tax bill live up to its promises?

 
By Heather Long
The Washington Post
Updated 4/15/2019 10:51 AM
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  • If you don't think you will be able to complete and file your taxes on time, request an extension. Filing an extension helps taxpayers avoid penalties for a late return, according to the IRS.

    If you don't think you will be able to complete and file your taxes on time, request an extension. Filing an extension helps taxpayers avoid penalties for a late return, according to the IRS. Associated Press/

Monday is Tax Day, the due date for Americans to file their 2018 taxes. It also marks a milestone: the country has made it through a full year of President Donald Trump's new tax code -- and the first tax filing season under the new rules.

Trump and his fellow Republicans promised their bill would cut taxes, make filing simpler and boost wages, business spending and the overall economy. Trump signed the most sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code in three decades into law on December 22, 2017 with zero Democratic votes. With year one in the books, it's fair to say some of those promises came true, some did not and some it's still too early to definitely say. Here's a rundown of what we know so far.

1. Promise: Your taxes will fit on a postcard. This didn't happen. The main form almost all tax filers fill out -- the 1040 -- did shrink. But much of the information that used to appear on the 1040 now appears on schedules, meaning a lot of taxpayers simply ended up filling out more pages. Instructions for the main form also grew by 10 pages.

"It's not simpler. The only real piece that was removed from the 1040 was the personal exemption and that was just one line," said Bradley Heim, an Indiana University professor and former economist in Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis. "A lot of what was changed was lines were taken from the 1040 and moved to other schedules."

But Heim says many taxpayers probably won't notice the extra schedules and instructions since most people use some sort of service or computer program to do their taxes for them. Many also took advantage of the higher standard deduction so they didn't have to itemize, but Heim points out people still had to keep track of their various charitable receipts and state and local taxes to figure out if taking the standard deduction was their best option or not.

2. Promise: The middle class will benefit. Yes, the vast majority of Americans -- 65 percent -- did get a tax cut. Looking specifically at the middle class, the Tax Policy Center predicted 82 percent of middle-class earners (households who make $49,000 to $86,000 a year) would receive a tax cut averaging about $1,050.

The data out so far backs up the estimates. H & R Block said among the millions of tax returns it processed by the end of March, the average tax cut was $1,200. (It's also true not everyone is celebrating. About 9 percent of middle-income families had to pay more and the rest paid about the same in taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center.)

3. Promise: Your wages will rise. Trump kept claiming the average American would get $4,000 more a year due to the tax bill. That hasn't panned out, although there is some good news on pay.

Some companies gave employees a one-time bonus or raised pay and credited the tax bill, but that only impacted a few million people out of the nearly 157 million employed. The White House is now pointing to the rise in average hourly pay as a sign of success.

For the average worker, wages are now growing over 3 percent a year, according to the Labor Department, and they are growing fastest for lower income workers. That's the best nominal (not adjusted for cost of living) gain in about a decade, but it's important to point out that wage gains had been slowly trending up for the past several years.

In 2015, wages rose an average of 2.3 percent. In 2017, it was about 2.6 percent. Economists say the tax bill probably helped push wages above 3 percent, but there was some momentum already. For a worker making $60,000 a year, the faster wage growth added about $240 more than what the person would have received if wages had remained at the 2017 pace.

Some of the gains from higher wages and lower taxes have been offset by inflation. There are several measures of inflation, but none of them show prices rising fast enough to erase workers' wage gains right now (mainly because gas prices haven't jumped much in the past year).

4. Promise: The tax cut will "pay for itself." This is not happening. The White House stood almost alone on this vow. Economists and budget experts across the political spectrum predicted the tax bill's $1.5 trillion price tag would have to be funded mostly by debt. The early results indicate that is exactly what is happening.

Despite a strong economy, tax receipts are down. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget predicts the budget deficit this fiscal year will hit almost $900 billion. The tax bill accounts for $230 billion of that deficit -- or about a quarter of it, CRFB calculated.

5. Promise: There will be a "Capex" boom. There was a bounce, but it might be short-lived.

"Capex" stands for capital expenditures, a Wall Street term for the investments that businesses make in equipment, technology, new buildings and research. These kinds of investments tend to make workers more productive, which boosts wages and economic growth. The White House argued this is what the tax bill was all about and why it would cause much faster growth for years to come.

Here's what capex looks like in recent quarters, according to the Commerce Department. There's a noticeable jump in the first and second quarters of 2018 just after the tax bill is enacted, but that momentum appears to be fading back to more normal levels.

"I'm not buying the thesis that the tax cuts gave the biggest boost to capex," said Rajeev Dhawan, director of economic forecasting center at Georgia State University. "If tax cuts cause capex boom, then why did it fizzle in the second half of the year?"

Some argue that businesses need more time to digest the tax code changes before they make these big investment decisions so there could be another surge. But Dhawan points out that surveys like Morgan Stanley's Capex Plans Index aren't predicting that for this year.

6. Promise: Money will come flooding back from abroad. So far it's been a trickle. Trump kept talking about $4 trillion to $5 trillion that big companies had stashed overseas because they didn't want to bring the money back to the United States and get socked by a high tax rate. Trump cut the tax rate on repatriated money and said it would unleash a flood of cash coming home.

According to government data, $665 billion has come back so far, a fraction of the roughly $3 trillion many analysts believe is overseas. But experts say there are many reasons companies might be waiting, including that the lower tax rate will be in place for several years.

"It's really too early to tell. Fortune 500 company tax directors are still figuring out the law and how to do their taxes," said Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at University of California-Irvine. "They haven't really gotten to the step of changing the way they make investments going forward."

7. Promise: More Companies will want to do business in the United States. Business sentiment jumped after the largest corporate tax cut in U.S. history. Executives of big companies gave Trump a warm welcome at the World Economic Forum just after the bill passed and firms like JPMorgan Chase reported billions in tax savings last year, which helped boost profits and stock prices.

But it remains to be seen whether businesses will use the extra cash on hand to invest here. A few companies have made a big show of opening a new plant in the United States, but the hard data show the 500 largest public companies have used their tax savings to buy back stock far more than they have on capital spending.

8. Promise: GDP will be 3 percent or higher. Yes, Trump basically achieved this in the first year after the tax cuts (the official statistic is 2.9 percent, but the way many economists prefer to calculate GDP growth showed 3 percent growth).

Trump has predicted similar growth every year for the next decade, but almost no one else agrees with that forecast. Most experts say growth this year will be closer to 2 percent. Even a White House report released last month asserted it would take additional tax cuts and a big infrastructure bill to keep growth as high as Trump wants for years to come.

9. Promise: Americans will love this bill. More people give the bill a thumbs-down than a thumbs-up, according to the RealClearPolitics tracker, a trend that has been pretty consistent since it passed. Republicans didn't even campaign on it much during the midterm election.

But Kevin Hassett, head of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers, points out Trump's approval rating on the economy overall is pretty good right now. In a CNN poll last month, for example, 71 percent of Americans said the economy is in good shape, the highest reading since 2001 in that poll.

In short, polling on the tax bill splits mostly along partisan lines, but Americans seem pretty happy with the economy overall right now, and some of that is due to tax cuts. A key reason many disapprove of the tax cuts is because while most Americans did receive a lower tax bill, the biggest benefits went to the wealthy, according to independent analyses.

10. Refunds. There was no promise on refunds, but fewer people received one this year, and they are not happy about it. According to IRS data through the first week in April, about 800,000 fewer tax filers received refunds, a number that's likely to grow by the end of the tax season.

Tax refunds tell you nothing about how much someone paid in taxes. Most Americans did pay less in federal taxes in 2018, but they received that savings via fatter paychecks last year instead of in a one-time payment. Getting a refund means someone overpaid taxes to the government during the year and thus gets that extra money back.

"Many people paid less in taxes at all income levels," said John Petosa, an accountant and professor of practice at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. "But I had a number of clients that had to write a check at the end of the year because even though they paid less overall in taxes, they didn't have enough tax withheld from their paycheck. They weren't used to that and they felt the tax cut promise hadn't been delivered upon."

Most tax experts advise people not to get a refund, but Republicans learned just how much Americans love their refunds as outrage grew about smaller -- or disappearing -- refunds.

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