Key tax policy issues to watch for at the first Republican debate

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Eight candidates will take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate Wednesday night — and experts are watching closely for comments on key tax policy issues.

“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the expiration of all the individual income tax provisions slated after 2025,” said John Buhl, senior communications manager at the Tax Policy Center.

Enacted in 2017, former President Donald Trump’s signature tax legislation ushered in sweeping changes to the tax code, including lower income tax brackets, higher standard deductions and a significantly larger estate tax exclusion, among other provisions.

Trump announced that he will be skipping the GOP debate.

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While many Republicans would like to see these provisions extended, specific proposals are unclear, particularly amid ongoing debate about the deficit, Buhl said.

“Republicans want deficits to be reduced,” he said. “How do they plan to both do that and deal with this $3 trillion albatross?”

Most Americans could see higher taxes

One of the closely watched Tax Cuts and Jobs Act provisions is changes to the individual income tax brackets.

The legislation trimmed most of the federal income tax brackets, with the highest rate falling to 37% from 39.6%, and without intervention from Congress the lower rates will sunset in 2026.

“Without any action, virtually all taxpayers would see their taxes go up,” said Erica York, senior economist and research manager with Tax Foundation’s Center for Federal Tax Policy.

Provisions such as the doubled standard deduction, which reduces the amount of income subject to tax, and the bigger child tax credit have also had a significant impact on Americans’ wallets, she said.

While details from the debate stage may be slim, York would like to see where candidates stand on various provisions, including which issues may be prioritized.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a complete extension of everything in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” she said. “There’s probably going to have to be some give-and-take.”

‘Tax policy is always about trade-offs’

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Trump’s legislation also included a $10,000 cap on the federal tax break for state and local taxes, known as SALT, which has been a key issue for some lawmakers in high-tax states such as California, New Jersey and New York.

Though most Americans don’t itemize federal tax deductions, the current SALT limit stops itemizers from claiming more than $10,000 for state income and property taxes.

While the SALT cap may not be addressed on the debate stage, Buhl expects to see it from state candidates on both sides of the aisle.

“But at the end of the day, tax policy is always about trade-offs,” he said. “That’s why it’s going to be difficult to make substantive changes going forward.”