The state side of federal corporate income tax reforms

In the 2016 US presidential race, what's likely to get side-tracked in the debate over federal tax code reform are the potential repercussions on the states. It remains to be seen how the states with respond to another set of federal tax law changes—the only certainty seems to be that it will be reactive.

Federal tax reform and the 2016 election

In the upcoming months, the 2016 US presidential race will tighten as both political parties hold their respective conventions, formally nominate their candidates, and greet the announced vice presidential running mates. As the chosen nominees then campaign for votes across the country and share their visions, they will explain their platforms to voters—and it’s relatively safe to say that various proposals to change or drastically reform the federal tax code will be part of the conversation.

As the candidates’ respective tax plans are scrutinized, the resulting federal budget implications and their expenditure policies will be front-and-center in the dialogue. What’s likely to get side-tracked in this debate, however, are the potential repercussions for the states—how the various federal tax reform plans may impact revenue collections, tax structures, and borrowing at the state and local levels—thereby leaving it up to state policymakers to respond to the federal changes after the fact.

Take, for example, the recently enacted federal Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015. That legislation made permanent several lapsed business incentives, including the research credit and the subpart F exception for active financing income; renewed a handful of taxpayer-friendly provisions (such as bonus depreciation) for five years; and extended various other tax benefits through 2016—all without much analysis afforded to the resulting effect on state corporate income tax collections.

These recently enacted federal tax law changes may have a significant effect on state corporate income taxes depending on a state’s adoption of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) and/or its conformity updates, as well as the state’s IRC decoupling provisions, modifications, variations, and/or exceptions. However, the states have been left to decide if, when, and/or how they will adopt these federal tax law changes in the context of their respective budgetary and political landscapes—often not making such determinations until well into their own impacted corporate tax filing seasons.

Change and IRC conformity on the campaign trail

The federal tax reforms made in 2002 may provide some insight as to how—if at all—the states may react to any upcoming federal corporate income tax reforms. The federal tax law changes enacted as part of the Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act of 2002 first implemented the federal bonus depreciation deduction to help encourage investment in certain new equipment and manufacturing machinery. Prior to this change, most states had generally incorporated the federal tax calculation of depreciation in their own respective state corporate income tax computation and thus were directly impacted by the increased federal deduction. As a result of this change, within seven months of the federal enactment of bonus depreciation, 23 states and the District of Columbia had taken legislative action to wholly or partially decouple from these federal provisions to avoid the resulting revenue loss in their own economically stressed state and local environments.

Another state response to resulting tax collection reductions from a flow-through effect of federal changes may be to couple with the IRC changes, but then increase state corporate income tax rates and/or eliminate certain other existing state business incentives or preferences to offset the resulting revenue loss—a move that is not often well-received in a sluggish or struggling state and local economy.

On the flip side, federal tax reform that reduces or eliminates certain deductions, credits, and exclusions (including, for example, transfer pricing or debt re-characterization-related reforms that may result in reduced deductions) may flow through to the states and potentially result in increased state and local revenues. In such cases, the local budgetary and political environment may be crucial in determining how a state responds.

For instance, state policymakers may opt to conform to the federal changes to ease the associated taxpayer compliance burdens and essentially reap the benefits. They may perhaps also implement ever-popular tax rate reductions or other pro-business incentives and preferences to offset some of the resulting state revenue gains. Should state policymakers choose to decouple from such federal tax changes, they may maintain the status quo for state corporate income tax collections but may also run the risk of augmented complexity in the state tax code, as well as increased state and local tax compliance and enforcement costs.

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