Report Explains How (and Why) States Must Close Hotel Tax Loophole

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Expedia, Orbitz, and Priceline are exploiting a major sales tax loophole, and in some states are possibly breaking the law in doing so.  Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) released a report explaining how this loophole works, and pegging its aggregate size at somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million per year.  The report urges states and localities to pursue legal action, legislative action, or both in order to remedy this situation.

In the vast majority of cases, online travel companies (OTCs) like Expedia and Priceline currently remit sales and lodging taxes only on the “wholesale” room rate they pay to hotels — not the “retail” room rate they actually charge travelers.  In doing so, the OTCs claim that the difference between the retail and wholesale price is simply a “facilitation fee” that should not be subject to sales taxes.  But as CBPP rightly points out:

“The OTCs are providing the same kinds of marketing and room booking services that the hotels themselves engage in.  If the hotels may not deduct a pro-rated amount of their advertising and website operation expenses from the retail room charge prior to calculating applicable hotel taxes when they incur such expenses directly, there is no possible justification for compelling such a deduction when hotels pay an OTC to provide the same services.”

CBPP recommends that states and localities either sue to recoup the taxes owed by OTCs, or if current statutes are sufficiently unclear with respect to the taxes owed by OTCs, enact new legislation clarifying that taxes should be paid based on the full retail price of the room.  New York City and Washington DC have both taken this latter course of action, while a half dozen states and numerous localities have chosen to pursue legal action.

Read the CBPP report for more detail, including state-by-state revenue estimates, an explanation of why this reform won’t harm tourism, and a closer look at what states and localities must do to close this inequitable and costly tax loophole.

Undocumented Immigrants Pay Taxes

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Weeks after the New York Times broke the story of General Electric’s tax avoidance, it’s still hard for many Americans to believe how successfully GE has managed to avoid owing any tax on its profits. Yet some anti-immigrant groups find it much more plausible that undocumented immigrants somehow pay no taxes at all, while relying heavily on state and local government services.

A new report from the Immigration Policy Center, fueled by data from ITEP’s Microsimulation Model, shows that in fact, undocumented families pay a substantial amount of state and local taxes across the nation. The report estimates that these families pay over $11 billion a year in state and local sales, excise, income and property taxes.

It’s notoriously difficult to know precisely even the basic facts about the changing undocumented population in the US, and the IPC report should be understood not as a definitive answer but as a sensible estimate based on the best available data. But the new IPC report serves as an important reminder that undocumented taxpayers make important financial contributions to the fiscal health of state and local governments.

America’s Tax System Is Not as Progressive as You Think

April 15, 2011 12:38 PM | | Bookmark and Share

Click Here for the 2013 Edition of this Report

Conservative lawmakers and pundits often claim that the richest Americans are paying a disproportionate share of taxes while a huge number of lower-income Americans pay nothing at all. CTJ has updated its report on federal, state and local taxes that explains why they’re wrong.

Read the report.

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CTJ’s Tax Day Report: America’s Tax System Is Not as Progressive as You Think

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Conservative lawmakers and pundits often claim that the richest Americans are paying a disproportionate share of taxes while a huge number of lower-income Americans pay nothing at all. CTJ has updated its report on federal, state and local taxes that explains why they’re wrong.

Read the report.

Honeywell Responds to CTJ, Explains How It Avoided Taxes

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Honeywell International has responded to a press release that CTJ posted Tuesday and which explained that the company has paid an effective U.S. income tax rate of just 4.1 percent averaged over the past five years.

The company’s CEO, Dave Cote, was a member of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and speaks frequently about his support for cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. Cote spoke on Tuesday at a public event focused on deficit reduction and was asked twice about the CTJ press release.

Within a matter of hours, Honeywell sent a letter to CTJ essentially saying that the company correctly reported large profits to its shareholders for the last two years but used available tax loopholes to report losses to the IRS.

CTJ’s director, Bob McIntyre, wrote a letter back to Honeywell that concludes:

“So I think we agree on the following: The reason why Honeywell, despite reporting substantial pretax U.S. profits to its shareholders, paid no federal income tax in 2009 or 2010 (or more precisely, paid less than zero) is that it took advantage of legal tax breaks to wipe out its federal income tax liability. We may disagree, however, about whether these tax breaks should exist.”

Read CTJ’s press release about Honeywell and the correspondence between the company and CTJ.

CTJ Explains Why Business Roundtable Report on Effective Tax Rates Is Hogwash

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Yesterday, the Business Roundtable, a politically conservative group of corporate CEOs, released a report claiming to show that U.S. corporations pay higher effective tax rates than corporations of other countries. CTJ’s director Bob McIntyre was quoted in several news articles explaining why the report, which was written by PricewaterhouseCoopers, is nonsensical.

First, it includes both “current” income taxes (i.e., taxes paid) and “deferred” income taxes (i.e., taxes not paid). Because the US allows far more tax breaks in the form of (indefinite) deferrals than do other countries, that makes the US effective tax rate look much higher than it actually is. Second, the report looks at worldwide taxes paid, and attributes all of those taxes to the country where companies are headquartered. So if US companies pay a lot of foreign taxes, the report counts that as high taxes imposed by the United States!

Corporations’ public filings divide their tax liabilities into “current” taxes and “deferred” taxes, the deferred taxes being those a company expects to pay in the future. Taxes that are “deferred” are quite often never paid at all. If and when they are paid in the future, they will be recorded as “current” taxes during that year, but usually the company will have more deferrals that will offset any deferred taxes that come due.

Corporations’ public filings also provide their worldwide taxes on their worldwide profits. But clearly the U.S. government only has control over U.S. taxes. Many companies actually pay taxes at a higher rate on their foreign profits because other countries do not provide as many breaks for investment as the U.S. does. But surely no one expects Congress to give corporations even more breaks to help them pay their foreign taxes.

The report issued for the Business Roundtable includes current and deferred, worldwide taxes in its calculation of effective tax rates of corporations. Floyd Norris, the chief financial correspondent of The New York Times, calls this “highly misleading.” He asked the author of the report how much U.S. corporations actually pay to the U.S. government (how much their current U.S. taxes are in a given year).

The reply from PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Andrew Lyon (who happens to be a former assistant Treasury secretary under George W. Bush): “We have not looked at that data.”

Thankfully, Citizens for Tax Justice is looking into that data and hopes to have a report within a few months.


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Hundreds of events from coast to coast are being organized to target corporations that fail to pay their fair share in taxes while lawmakers consider slashing public services that working Americans depend on.


MoveOn invites “frustrated taxpayers, underwater homeowners, vilified public servants, job-hunting students, and unemployed veterans—everyone facing cuts or cutbacks, a pink slip or a shrinking paycheck” to join demonstrations to demand that Congress cracks down on corporate tax dodgers and to deliver to these companies the tax bill they should pay. Find a MoveOn event near you.

U.S. Uncut

U.S. Uncut is also organizing demonstrations and events targeting corporations, some of which are in cooperation with MoveOn. Find a U.S. Uncut event in your area.


Finally, U.S. PIRG and other organizations will have activities outside post offices on April 15 and April 18 in several states to create awareness about tax dodging by corporations and to press Congress to act. These events will target people whose minds are very much on taxes as they mail off their federal income tax returns.

See the list below for U.S. PIRG events in your state and contact information.

April 15, 2011

Event: U.S. Public Interest Research Group will be holding events outside of Post Offices across the country to try to get Congress to address tax dodging corporations with report releases and post-carding.


Portland OR, April 15th. Contact Jen Lavelle at, 503.231.4181

AnnArbor MI, April 15th. Contact Megan Hess at, 734.662.6597

Chicago IL, date TBD. Contact Brian Imus at, 312-544-4433 x 210 (Federal Plaza, outside of main post office)

Hartford CT, April 15th, Contact Jenn Hatch at, 860.233.7554

Albuquerque NM, date TBD, Contact Erin Eckelson at, 505.254.1244

Philly area, date TBD. Contact Megan DeSmedt at, 215.732.3747

Phenoix AZ, April 15th. Contact Seren Unrein at, 602.252.9227

Des Moines IA, Date TBD, Contact Sonia Ashe at, 515.282.4193

April 18, 2011

Event: U.S. Public Interest Research Group will be holding events outside of Post Offices across the country to try to get Congress to address tax dodging corporations with report releases and post-carding. U.S. PIRG is partnering with Citizen Action in a number of states: NJ, OR, IL, MI, MO, CT.


Trenton NJ, April 18th. Contact Jen Kim at, 609.394.8155

Seattle WA, April 18th, Contact Lindsay Jacobson at, 206.568.2854 (either at post office downtown, or in front of Microsoft).

Boston MA, April 19th, Contact Dee Cummings at, 617.292.4805

Baltimore MD, April 18th, Contact Johanna Neumann at, (410) 467-9389

St. Lois MO, TBD

Obama Blasts Ryan Budget Plan

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In his speech on Wednesday addressing the budget deficit, President Obama skewered the House Republicans’ budget plan as painting “a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic.” He pointed out that if enacted, the budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan would mean

– “A 70 percent cut to clean energy. A 25 percent cut in education. A 30 percent cut in transportation.”

– “Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year.”

– Typical 65-year-olds would spend nearly $6,400 more annually on health care.

– Medicare would be turned into a voucher, and “if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own.”

– 50 million would lose health insurance, resulting from Medicaid cuts and the repeal of the health care reform law.

– A trillion dollars in tax breaks for the rich (the extension of the parts of the Bush tax cuts that Obama wants to see expire).

“There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill,” President Obama said of the Ryan budget plan.

Ryan’s Goal Is to Shrink Government, Not the Deficit

A report last week from CTJ explains that Ryan’s budget actually reduces revenue, compared to current law and compared to Obama’s proposed budget, which makes it pretty obvious that deficit reduction is not its real motivation. The Ryan plan would essentially make permanent the level of taxation enacted under President Bush and then overhaul the tax system to eliminate loopholes and put the revenue saved towards rate reductions.

The result would be that the highest rates for individuals and corporations would be just 25 percent, and tax revenue collected would equal just between 18 and 19 percent of GDP. To put this in perspective, note that spending was about 21 percent of GDP under President Reagan – and that was before the baby-boomers were retiring, before health care costs had climbed so dramatically, and before we became engaged in multiple conflicts in the Middle East.

The Ryan plan does not spell out in any detail what the resulting tax system would look like – and there’s a specific reason for this. Last year, when Congressman Ryan presented a detailed plan that would allow people to pay income taxes at a top rate of 25 percent, Citizens for Tax Justice found that the plan would cut taxes, on average, for the richest ten percent and raise taxes, on average, for all other income groups. Remarkably, the plan would also lose $2 trillion over a decade.

Even President Obama’s Approach Could Be Dramatically Improved

While President Obama’s approach is vastly more responsible and reasonable than the House Republicans’ plan, it still doesn’t do enough to raise revenue. President Obama would allow the Bush tax cuts for the rich to expire and wants to limit tax expenditures, which are the equivalent of spending but administered through the tax code.

Like his fiscal commission, Obama says he wants an overall deficit reduction plan that cuts spending by two dollars for every one dollar of new revenue. But given that we are one of the least taxed countries in the developed world, at very least that ratio should be reversed. To be sure, much of the new revenue should come from cutting what amounts to spending programs implemented through the tax code, as the President argues.

But it’s unclear exactly what he means when he says he wants to raise $1 trillion in new revenue. If he aims to raise $1 trillion compared to the “current policy baseline,” which assumes that the Bush tax cuts are extended forever, that is mostly accomplished by allowing the tax cuts for the richest two percent to expire, as he has already proposed.

But surely more Americans than just the richest two percent can afford to pay more, especially if budget reform is going to involve “shared sacrifice,” as President Obama says. And surely we can do more than just allow part of the Bush tax cuts to expire, which will happen anyway if Congress does absolutely nothing.

Finally, the President reiterated his call for corporate tax reform to make our businesses “more competitive.” Frankly, what we need is to make our businesses pay more in taxes, particularly our corporations. Even Bush’s Treasury concluded in a 2007 report that the share of profits paid in taxes is lower on average for U.S. corporations than corporations of other developed countries. To not even attempt to get more revenue overall from our corporate tax system is incomprehensible.

A Balanced Approach: Revenues Make Up Over 40 Percent of DC Mayor Vince Gray’s Budget Fix

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Recently, DC mayor Vince Gray released his proposal to balance the District’s budget.  In sharp contrast to the cut-heavy budgets being debated in most places around the country, Gray’s budget would use increased revenues, including taxes, to close over 40 percent of the gap.  Particularly encouraging are Gray’s proposals to raise taxes on corporations and high-income earners.

One of the most significant revenue-raisers in Gray’s budget is the creation of a new tax bracket of 8.9 percent on incomes over $200,000.  DC’s current top bracket of 8.5 percent kicks-in at just $40,000 of taxable income. 

Gray’s plan also wisely decouples the District’s income tax code from one of many federal income tax cuts extended last year — the repeal of the “Pease” limitation on itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers.  ITEP has recommended decoupling from the repeal of Pease on multiple occasions.

In addition to these reforms, Gray’s budget also recommends implementing combined reporting of corporations’ profits in different jurisdictions, and increasing the minimum franchise tax on firms with gross revenue over $1 million. 

Consumption taxes are relied upon to generate most of the remaining revenue boost contained in Gray’s budget.  Specifically, Gray is seeking to make the city’s temporary sales tax increase permanent, raise the parking garage tax from 12 percent to 18 percent, increase the off-premise alcohol tax from 9 percent to 10 percent, and expand the city’s sales tax base to include purchases of live theater tickets.

Unfortunately, while Gray’s budget is quite reasonable on the revenue side, its spending proposals are much harder to stomach.  As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has pointed out, human services and other low-income programs fare very poorly under the plan.  These programs account for only one-fourth of the city’s budget, yet two-thirds of the spending reductions pitched by Gray would come from slashing this part of the District’s safety net.

Sales Tax Reform Debated in Rhode Island

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Will Rhode Island be the next state to allow special interests to prevent it from bringing its sales tax into the 21st century? 

Despite near-universal agreement among economists on the wisdom of broadening sales tax bases and dozens of state tax commissions recommending such a move, state lawmakers across the country have crumbled under the pressure from service providers who do not believe their products should have to compete on the same playing field as goods. 

As a result, no state in recent years has succeeded in implementing a comprehensive sales tax base broadening plan.  The political ramifications of taking on previously untaxed businesses may make some policymakers wary.

This must change. As states shift from manufacturing economies to service economies, it’s essential that tax structures change too.

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee included an expansive sales tax modernization plan in his budget proposal this year which would broaden Rhode Island’s sales tax base to include dozens of services, lower the general state sales tax rate, add a one percent tax on most currently exempted goods, and raise additional revenue to help mitigate budget cuts. 

Governor Chafee is one of only a handful of governors willing to protect vital public services by supporting new revenues as part of a balanced budget plan. He is also one of just two governors willing to consider making long-term and necessary improvements to his state’s sales tax rather than just simply raising the rate.

Rhode Island House and Senate Finance members took up the governor’s proposal this week.  More than 90 individuals spoke against the plan at the House Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday with hundreds more on site to voice their opposition.  As to be expected, everyone from the auto mechanics to landscapers to salon and bowling alley owners lined the halls to say, “Don’t tax me.” 

ITEP submitted testimony to both committees in support of the modernization proposal.

Democratic Representative Jan Malik, who asked business owners during the hearing why they should not be taxed while other businesses are, said “I feel their pain… But I understand what the governor is trying to do here. Why is it fair for my business to get taxed [Malik owns a liquor store] but not your business? These are the questions that have to be answered. We all have to share the pain in this state.” 

Kate Brock of Ocean State Action, one of the few to speak in favor of the governor’s plan, asked why the state taxes lawnmowers but not landscapers, and nail polish but not nail salons. She said, “It is illogical to tax a good but not a service that results in the same outcome.”

It looks like the special interests triumphed at least in the short term in Rhode Island. House Speaker Gordon Fox said that the majority of house members will not be supporting the governor’s plan in its current form, but will work with him to come up a viable alternative.  Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed also announced that the Senate is working on alternative ways to address the state’s budget shortfall.  Neither would say that changes to the sales tax are altogether off the table. 

Governor Chafee said he was open to hearing suggestions from the House and Senate, but reasserted the need to update the sales tax to “stabilize the state’s revenues during downturns in the economy and to better align it with modern-day customer’s spending habits.”

Many lawmakers are not only rejecting the governor’s sales tax overhaul proposal, but are also objecting to the idea of raising revenue at all to address the state’s $300 million budget gap.  One of the “alternatives” will likely be more cuts to education and other core services.

If there’s one valid criticism of the proposal, it’s that even though taxing services is generally less regressive than a sales tax rate increase, it remains a regressive tax no matter how broad the base. The governor’s plan therefore asks more of low-income households than of the wealthiest in the state. 

Coupling the base expansion with a fully refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit would ensure low-income households are not disproportionately impacted by the governor’s (otherwise sensible) sales tax modernization proposal.

Rhode Island’s sales tax base is one of the narrowest in the country, largely limited to tangible goods and even many of those are exempted from taxation.  As currently structured, Rhode Island’s general sales tax is unsustainable, inadequate, and unfair. Governor Chafee’s proposed reforms would take important steps towards repairing each of these problems, and in particular would help stabilize revenue.

If Rhode Island (or any state for that matter) wants to continue relying on a sales tax as a substantial and reliable revenue source, lawmakers are going to have to take a stand against the service industry sooner rather than later.