The Value of a Refundable Credit

In the 2017 legislative session, our legislature passed an earned income tax credit (EITC), which its supporters maintain is the best solution to lift families out of poverty since sliced bread.  At the Department of Taxation‘s urging, however, the EITC was made nonrefundable.  Advocates clearly didn’t like that, and are already imploring the 2018 legislature to make the credit refundable.

Well, what’s the difference?  Let’s start with a nonrefundable credit, which is current law.  Suppose you either have lots of credits or not very much income, so you have more credits than tax liability.  If you have made tax payments throughout the year, through wage withholding perhaps, you still can get all your payments back.  But once the tax liability hits zero, there’s no more.  The state does not cut you a check, but you get a credit carryover which can be used against next year’s tax liability.

In contrast, a refundable credit is just as good as cash.  Not only can this type of credit reduce the amount of tax owed, but if the tax liability is less than the credit the State will cut the taxpayer a check for the difference.

Why is the State concerned about issuing refundable credits?  There are several reasons.

First, issuing a refund is administratively expensive.  In most businesses, the internal process necessary to send money to someone goes through several checks and balances to make sure that no mistakes are made.  In our state government, we need to do those processes twice.  At the Department of Taxation, staff can ask for a refund to be issued but no one can issue a check.  Instead, a document called a “refund voucher” is sent to a different department altogether, the Department of Accounting and General Services (DAGS).  Once DAGS gets the refund voucher, it goes through its own processes, checking to see if the recipient doesn’t owe another agency for example, and then issues the check.

Second, a refund can become a target for bad actors.  We earlier pointed to reports from the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration estimating that more than 20% of all federal EITC payouts were improper.  Other studies estimated that about half of these so-called improper payments were paid out because someone made a mistake.  Perhaps the taxpayer was confused by the tax form, which is admittedly complex.  The other half were paid out because of bad actors.  Maybe a taxpayer claimed credits for kids they don’t have.  Maybe an unethical tax preparation service filled in data claiming credits for people who exist but aren’t part of the taxpayer’s family.  Once the cash goes out, however, it’s tough to get back.  In Hawaii, our credit is 20% of the federal credit so a smaller check would go out, and because the number is smaller the Department of Taxation might not be motivated to chase down the improper payments given the number and severity of other items on their plate.

Indeed, the Department recently estimated that changing the Hawaii EITC to a refundable one would cost the State $32 million more than a nonrefundable credit.  It’s not clear how they came up with that number.  But that amount of money definitely could cool a few sweltering classrooms, or perhaps fix a few plumbing facilities at the airport.  In this situation, what are our priorities?  Where is the need greatest?  Or will our lawmakers simply punt on the question and soak the taxpayers even more to make up the difference?

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Tom Yamachika is the President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a private, nonprofit educational organization dedicated to informing the taxpaying public about the finances of our state and local governments in Hawaii. Tom is also a tax attorney in solo practice and has been since early 2013. Prior to 2013, he was with the accounting firm Accuity LLP, which was formed in 2006 from the Honolulu office of Coopers & Lybrand (which later became PricewaterhouseCoopers). Before that, he served as an Administrative Rules Specialist in the State of Hawaii Department of Taxation from 1994 to 1996, where he drafted rules, interpretive releases, and legislation on several different state taxes. Prior to that, he practiced litigation and tax law with Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright in Honolulu.