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Saturday, June 27, 2020

Are travel tax subsidies a good idea?

On May 18, 2020, President Trump met with some restaurant execs and suggested a few tax law changes to help the industry. This included "restore the restaurant deduction to help jobless restaurant workers" He also suggested: "Create an “Explore America” — that’s “Explore,” right?  Explore America tax credit that Americans can use for domestic travel, including visits to restaurants."

On June 22, 2020, Senator McSally (R-AZ) introduced S. 4031American Tax Rebate and Incentive Program Act (the American TRIP Act). This bill would add new IRC §25E, Travel, Hospitality, and Entertainment Expenses. This bill does the following:

  • Provide a 100% nonrefundable credit on up to $4,000 of expenses for travel and restaurant usage ($8,000 MFJ) + $500 x # qualifying children (under age 17).
  • The credit is for qualifying travel in the U.S. and its territories that is over 49 miles from the taxpayer's home for food, lodging, transportation, live entertainment (including sporting events), expenses related to attending conference or business meeting).
  • For use of a personal vehicle, the amount considered spent is measured using the standard mileage rate in effect under §162(a), with is 57.5 cents/mile for 2020 (this is the rate that includes depreciation so too high for personal travel).
  • The credit is based on travel after 12/31/19 and before 1/1/22 per the text of S. 4031 (so 2020 and 2021). However the sponsor's press release says the credit applies for 2020, 2021 and 2022.
  • Travel to the taxpayer's vacation home is okay if 50 miles or more away, but expenses of the home don't qualify.
  • S. 4031 also allocates $50 million of grant funds to promote tourism and travel in the U.S.
Is this a good idea? Let's consider the likely purpose and how it stacks up against a few principles of good tax policy.

Purpose: Encourage people to travel and spend money at hotels and restaurants and buy airline, bus or train tickets or gasoline, and to support theaters, amusement parks and sporting events. Will it be enough for people to risk exposure to COVID-19? Might it be enough for these facilities to put more protection in place for customers? Might it send a message that travel and interaction with others is safer than it might really be? What about helping other industries such as local restaurants, theaters, fitness centers and stores?

Why is this effective starting on January 1, 2020? This means the credit subsidizes behavior that already took place - a retroactive incentive. That is a waste of funds.  Personally, I was in DC for two extra days as part of a business trip before the pandemic. That would qualify for the credit, meaning that with a 100% credit, all of my fellow taxpayers would subsidize my expenses on those two days. Why? There is no purpose for this subsidy or gift.

Certainly, the effective date should be after enactment, not before.

Equity: Generally a credit is more fair than a deduction because the credit is worth the same amount to all taxpayers. However, this credit is not refundable so it it not available to many taxpayers or won't cover all of their travel even if below the specified credit amounts, but the full credit is easily available to higher income taxpayers, so they get a significant subsidy.

For example, assume a married couple with no children has taxable income of $70,500 in 2020. Their tax liability is $8,065. They should think ahead and take a vacation and spend that much money. Basically, instead of paying that total to the U.S. Treasury, they can spend $8,000 on a vacation and just owe $65 to the government. In contrast, if this couple's taxable income in 2020 is instead $19,000, they owe only $1,900 (less or zero if they are eligible for the EITC, particularly is they have a child). So if they managed to spend $3,000 on their vacation, they get a subsidy of only $1,900.

Simplicity: The terminology seems clear. But, what documentation will need to be maintained and forms completed? 

Minimum tax gap: Might some taxpayers just say they took a trip to get the tax break? Hopefully not but if there is no reporting form, it could happen. Also, the credit is better than a business deduction so self-employed individuals who need to travel for business may be better off making sure the trip doesn't qualify as a business deduction so they can claim the 100% credit instead.

So, while the purpose to help out restaurants and the travel industry may sound good, this large non-refundable credit means that the government (that is, all taxpayers) will in essence, subsidize vacations for individuals with tax liabilities up to $8,000 (more if the married couple has children under age 17). Fairness and the cost to government revenues is a significant issue.

What do you think?

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