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Which GOP flat tax plan is fairest of them all?

Three Republican presidential candidates have put forward flat tax plans so far, but their proposals would not affect U.S. taxpayers in the same way. All, however, would probably lead to less revenue for the U.S. government, analysts say, meaning spending cuts of a sizable magnitude would be in order.

Businessman Herman Cain’s "9-9-9" plan — a 9 percent income tax, 9 percent sales tax, and 9 percent corporate tax rate — is perhaps best known. But Texas Gov. Rick Perry has now introduced his own vision for a 20 percent flat tax on income and a 20 percent tax rate on corporations. Moreover, Newt Gingrich, now running third or fourth in some polls, has proposed an optional 15 percent flat tax on personal income.

What would these various flat tax plans mean for you? What would they do to the nation’s budget deficit?

Tax experts are struggling to answer those questions, noting that the candidates, except for Perry, have not spelled out their plans in detail. For example, Cain has already changed his 9-9-9 proposal to exempt people below the poverty line from paying taxes, but he hasn't said exactly how that will happen.

“Anybody who is in the tax world will say the devil is in the details,” says Michael Graetz, a professor at Columbia University in New York and an expert on taxation. “None of the candidates want to get too detailed.”

Nonetheless, from what is known, here is how some tax experts view the three plans.

The Perry proposal
Perry would allow individuals to choose between his flat 20 percent income tax and the current tax code. As a result, no one would be worse off, says Ted Gayer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “You are pretty much capping how much you would pay at 20 percent and anyone paying less than 20 percent would stick to that,” says Gayer.

However, under the Perry plan, low-income wage earners who currently qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child care tax credit would lose them. Thus, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a married couple earning $31,000 a year with two children would get back $5,147 under 2011 tax law. Under Perry’s proposal, they would owe nothing but get nothing back.

“The Perry plan would not help people who currently benefit from refundable tax credits and are mainly moderate to low income,” says Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center.

If the same four-member household were middle-income, earning $69,800, they would come out $1,140 ahead under the Perry plan. If they made $136,000 a year, they would benefit by $11,980. A very wealthy couple making $424,900 would have an extra $46,400 in their bank account.

Although Perry maintains his plan would not widen the U.S. budget deficit, independent experts suggest that it would. Tax revenue would fall for the federal government as tax rates dropped. However, Perry maintains government revenues would increase as the economy grew faster. “That’s highly unrealistic,” says Williams. “He is still going to have to cut spending a lot.”

The Gingrich plan
Gingrich’s plan has a lower tax rate than Perry's, but it does not give taxpayers credit for paying state and local taxes, as does Perry. “The Gingrich plan might be worse for people in high-income-tax states like California and New York,” says Mr. Graetz, “since they would lose the deduction for state income taxes.”

Under Gingrich, middle-income, high-income and very-high-income individuals would benefit from the flat 15 percent tax rate.

“People who make $1 million and above [would] have an effective tax rate of 24 percent,” says David Cay Johnston, who teaches at Syracuse University and who wrote two best-selling books on the tax code. “He would be cutting their taxes by 37.5 percent,” says Johnston, also a blogger for Thomson Reuters.

Under the Gingrich plan, the budget deficit would grow, estimates Williams at the Tax Policy Center. “You would have about three-quarters of the revenue you would have under Perry, so you have a much bigger revenue hole,” he says.

The Cain calculus
To calculate taxes under the Cain plan, the Tax Policy Center added up all three taxes totaling the equivalent of a 25.38 percent national sales tax.

Using that calculation, taxes for the wealthy would drop considerably under Cain’s proposal. The Tax Policy Center projects in 2013, the first year the Cain plan could be enacted, 95 percent of people making $1 million or more would get a tax cut that averaged $487,300.

By way of comparison, only 16 percent of people making between $50,000 and $75,000 a year would get a tax cut, averaging $1,959. At least 70 percent of people in this middle-income category would see their average federal taxes rise by $4,326.

Until Cain decided to give poor Americans protection from his tax plan, the Tax Policy Center had decided his plan would not affect the federal budget deficit. However, with that change, the Cain plan will mean loss of revenue and the government would have to cut spending to make up for it, Williams says.

Ron Scherer is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor.

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Comments (9)

I'm for it!

And frilly toothpicks. Also for those.

Compare those plans to a change to SP/UHC. You never see a savings comparison. Wonder why? Because saving $1T to $1.5+T/year is not what anyone on the right wants to see....

How about we make the Social Security tax a flat tax for starters? No cap, same rate applies to all income and where there's no employer match, the taxpayer pays double like the rest of us do on contract and self-employed income.
What do you flat taxers think?

OK, so let's say one of these jokers gets the nomination (unlikely).

Most peoples' taxes would increase significantly under these disastrous plans. Will Obama succeed in getting that message across to the voters? That's the question.

What's the matter, David? Do you think you're paying too much now?

And Obama doesn't poll over 50% against any of these people. So I hate to tell you this, but the next president will be a republican because the independents won't be voting for Obama again.

Something I feel like I end up noting time and time again on these issues - the flat tax in and of itself does not make anything simpler. It merely reduces the bit of simple algebra at the end of the return.

The real move here would be the elimination of all deductions, exemptions, etc. That can be done in the construct of the current code without reducing rates to one simple rate.

These two ideas are not interdependent and need to be decoupled by the media when discussing these issues. To fail to do so is a disservice to readers and to serious thinkers on these issues.

"That can be done in the construct of the current code without reducing rates to one simple rate."

The thinking here, Richard, is that if you believe it's time to overhaul the tax system, we might as well get rid of the antiquated, Marxist, progressive tax rate system. You know, like even Russia has.

Or why not a Reagan styled "Tax Simplification Plan", which resulted in a parallel tax system, the flat AMT tax you all love. And the tax simplification act was in two huge books, I threw mine out years ago, but they must have been a thousand pages each. Irrelevant now, with the internet, but the point is, there was no simplification.

All tax professionals long for a new "simplification" plan. As do the wealthy.

Sherry, an elderly relative of mine lives on social security and a minimum wage part-time job. She happened to mention to me a few years back that she had this great tax guy she uses every year. But he's kind of expensive, she said. He charged her $325 to do her 1040A.

I now do her taxes for her, for free.