Four states have filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, challenging the constitutionality of the new $10,000 cap on the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes, or SALT, enacted as part of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. The lawsuit is the latest effort by states to invalidate the SALT cap. It follows legislative workarounds enacted by New York and New Jersey, granting taxpayers in those states credits against state taxes for making contributions to state-created funds. The Internal Revenue Service has for its part responded by warning taxpayers that the federal law controls the characterization of deductions for federal income tax purposes and that taxpayers who utilize the state law workarounds do so at their peril. While this latest effort to challenge the SALT cap places the legality of the provision before the courts, the long-term fate of the SALT cap is more likely to be decided by the political, rather than the judicial, process.

The SALT Cap

Enacted in 2017, the TCJA was touted as the most significant tax reform legislation in three decades. Among its provisions is a $10,000 annual limitation on the deduction for state and local tax, which includes state and local income taxes, local real estate taxes and state sales taxes. Previously, there was no monetary limitation for an individual taxpayer’s SALT deduction. The new limitation is more detrimental to individuals in high tax states, such as California and New York. The average SALT deduction in California was around $18,500, while the average deduction in New York was around $22,000. The SALT limitation imposed by the TCJA applies to taxable years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, and before Jan. 1, 2026.

State Efforts to Work Around the SALT Cap

Some states are attempting to work around the SALT limitation using creative legislative solutions. Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a new state-operated charitable contribution fund to accept donations for the purposes of improving health care and public education in New York state. Taxpayers who itemize deductions may claim these charitable contributions as deductions on their federal and state tax returns. Any taxpayer making a donation may also claim a state tax credit equal to 85 percent of the donation amount for the tax year after the donation is made. Taxpayers may also make qualified contributions to certain not-for-profit organizations for specified purposes. The law also authorizes local governments and school districts to establish charitable gift reserve funds and to offer real property tax credits to incentivize contributions to these new local charitable funds.

New Jersey soon followed suit, with Gov. Phil Murphy signing into law a measure allowing municipalities, counties and school districts to establish charitable funds where taxpayers can donate in return for a property tax credit. In return for donations, taxpayers would receive credits on their property tax bill of up to 90 percent of the donation. Taxpayers would then be able to claim their donation as a charitable deduction on their federal income tax return.

Efforts to work around the SALT cap are also underway in California. The California Senate has passed a bill that would allow taxpayers a credit against their state income tax for contributions to the newly created California Excellence Fund. A similar bill is pending in the California Assembly.

IRS Warns Taxpayers Regarding Efforts to Bypass SALT Cap

Earlier this year, the Internal Revenue Service notified taxpayers that it will soon be issuing regulations addressing the deductibility of state and local tax payments for federal income tax purposes. At the same time, the IRS reminded taxpayers that federal law controls the characterization of payments for federal income tax purposes regardless of the characterization of the payments under state law. These forthcoming regulations will be targeted at the state-level work-arounds described above.

The IRS said that the regulations, to be issued in the near future, will help taxpayers understand the relationship between federal charitable contribution deductions and the new statutory limitation on the deduction of state and local taxes. The IRS also warned that it is continuing to monitor other state legislative proposals being considered to ensure that federal law controls the characterization of deductions for federal income tax filings.

Is the SALT Cap Unconstitutional?

The latest effort by the states to challenge the SALT cap is the lawsuit filed by states New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland. The suit names as defendants the Secretary of the Treasury, the Acting Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the Internal Revenue Service and the United States of America. The states allege that the SALT cap violates numerous provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the 10th Amendment, the 16th Amendment and Article I, Section 8.

According to a press release issued by Gov. Cuomo, the SALT cap was enacted to target New York and similarly situated states, interferes with states’ rights to make their own fiscal decisions and will disproportionately harm taxpayers in these states. An analysis by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance shows that the cap will increase New Yorkers’ federal taxes by $14.3 billion in 2018 alone and an additional $121 billion between 2019 and 2025. A press release issued by Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy similarly said that Connecticut taxpayers will lose an estimated $10.3 billion in SALT deductions in 2018 and see an increase in federal income tax liability of approximately $2.8 billion in 2018.

The states’ lawsuit challenging the SALT cap asserts three causes of action arising under the U.S. Constitution. The first alleges that by capping the amount of the SALT deduction, the federal government has impermissibly interfered with the states’ sovereign authority to determine their own fiscal authority, thereby violating the 10th Amendment. In their second cause of action, the states allege the federal government has exceeded its powers under the 16th Amendment by failing to provide for a deduction for all, or a significant portion of, state and local taxes. Finally, the states allege a violation of Article I, Section 8, which provides Congress with the “[p]ower to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Specifically, the states contend that the SALT cap interferes with their sovereign authority to determine their own taxation and fiscal policies by “coercing the Plaintiff States into lowering their taxes and cutting the services those taxes support.”

The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to vigorously defend the SALT cap as a legitimate exercise of the federal government’s taxing power. The Justice Department will no doubt point out that the newly enacted SALT cap was not specifically targeted at the four plaintiff-states; rather, the cap applies uniformly throughout all of the states, even though it may have disproportionate impact in states with high property taxes. In addition, SALT cap defenders will note that although state and local taxes have been deductible since the creation of the federal income tax code in 1913, Congress has many times modified the scope of the allowable SALT deduction, including in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and, most recently, in 2005. Finally, the Justice Department will surely rely upon the federal government’s constitutionally imbued and well-settled powers to tax and spend as set forth in Article 1, Section 8 Constitution in defending the SALT limitation.

While a federal judge will ultimately have to decide whether the states’ lawsuit has merit, the long-term viability of the SALT deduction cap will likely be determined by the political process instead. The outcome of the November mid-term elections will dictate which political party controls Congress. If the Democrats succeed in wresting back control of the House, expect to see legislation introduced to undo much of the TCJA, including the SALT cap deduction. If, on the other hand, the Republicans maintain their current majority in the House, the SALT cap will likely remain on the books, with its fate to be eventually determined by the courts — most likely an appellate court and potentially the Supreme Court of the United States.

Reprinted with permission from Law360. (c) 2018 Portfolio Media. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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