The announcement of new, inflation-adjusted standard deduction amounts and tax bracket cut-offs for tax year 2023 — unveiled last week by the IRS — was music to the ears of federal taxpayers desperate for good news on the personal finance front.
But the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance was silent. That’s because the state tax code doesn’t offer similar inflation relief.
With inflation rampaging, the roughly seven-percent increase in key federal tax code thresholds is the biggest one-year hike since key aspects of the IRS code were indexed to inflation in 1985.
Due to the adjustment, a typical couple with two children that files jointly and earns the national median income of $90,000 next year will pay $245 less in federal taxes. That’s because their standard deduction will rise by $1,800 and the earnings threshold over which their income starts being taxed at 12 percent instead of 10 percent rises from $20,550 to $22,000.
To be clear, the federal tax code’s CPI-based adjustment isn’t so much a tax cut as the prevention of a covert tax hike. Personal income tends to rise with inflation. If the standard deduction and tax brackets stay fixed, rising income will over time spill into higher tax brackets, increasing effective tax rates. That sends a greater share of personal income to the taxman.
And that’s how the New York State tax code works. With no inflation-protection mechanism, most filers get a slight tax hike each year. It typically goes unnoticed, because the impact in any one year is so small, especially when inflation is low. But the cumulative effect of these incremental hikes is dramatic.
To illustrate, consider how the state tax code looks today relative to an alternative, inflation-adjusted version. Let’s start a quarter century ago, when personal income tax terms enacted under Governor Pataki in 1995 first went into full effect.
As of 1997:
- The standard deduction was $13,000 for married couples filing jointly;
- The threshold for entering the then-highest rate bracket of 6.85 percent was $40,000; and
- The threshold for the phase-in of an additional, “supplemental” tax (where income below that highest bracket begins to be taxed at the 6.85 percent rate) was $100,000.
Between 1997 and 2009, the standard deduction for married-joint filers was raised to $15,000. Otherwise, except for the five-year period from 2011 to 2016, these provisions of the state tax code were not indexed for inflation, so they have changed little.
Where would those key 1997 cutoffs be if they had been annually inflation-adjusted since that time?
- The standard deduction for married couples would be $24,000, instead of $16,050;
- The threshold for entering the 5.97 percent bracket (the equivalent of the old 6.85 percent one) would be $74,000, instead of $43,000; and
- The adjusted gross income threshold for becoming subject to the supplemental tax would now be $185,000, instead of remaining at the 1997 level of $100,000.
Consider a New York couple with two kids that files jointly and earns the state median household income of $99,500. They would pay roughly $1,000 less every year in state tax if the 1997 terms of the code were indexed to inflation.
Instead, they are subject to a tax regime largely shaped by an unlegislated annual tax increase. It’s one that hits middle-income New Yorkers particularly hard. And, ironically, nearly all of it transpired during an era of historically low inflation.
That’s why we recommended last November that New York’s income tax regime include inflation protection for taxpayers — a feature present to a greater or lesser extent in many other states’ codes.
New Yorkers according to a recent study pay the highest taxes in the nation, measured as a share of personal income. To raise their taxes further still, politicians should be required to take responsibility — by taking a vote.