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More Money for Millionaires

Last year’s federal budget deficit topped $1.48 billion. With money so tight, you’d expect government to focus its efforts on those who really need the help. But that’s far from the case, according to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. Last month, he released a 37-page report entitled Subsidies of the Rich and Famous, outlining “sheer Washington stupidity” that he claims costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

The first part of Coburn’s report focuses on direct payments like Social Security and Medicare benefits, unemployment benefits, and farm subsidies. (NBA star Scottie Pippen, rocker Bruce Springsteen, and billionaire broadcaster Ted Turner have all gotten federal farm subsidies.) But Coburn also heaps his scorn on specific tax breaks that he calls a “reverse Robin Hood style of wealth distribution.” He claims he’s not interested in raising rates on anyone. And he cautions against demonizing “those who are successful.” But he does want to means-test benefits, close loopholes, and limit deductions that pamper millionaires with “unnecessary welfare to create an appearance everyone is benefiting from federal programs.”

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn
What sort of tax breaks have Senator Coburn so upset? Here are three:

• “Subsidizing Millionaires’ Mansions”: For 2009, 143,441 out of the 235,413 taxpayers reporting incomes over $1 million claimed mortgage interest deductions, averaging $30,995 each.

• Rental Expense Deduction: 69,074 of those million-dollar earners claimed a total of $12.5 billion in rental property expenses, including mortgage interest, cleaning and maintenance, and depreciation.

• Gambling Losses Deduction: Finally, 8,225 of the top earners reported a total of $4.2 billion in gambling losses.

Coburn’s points seem reasonable at first glance. Does Oprah Winfrey really “need” a tax break for her $50 million California mansion? Should Vegas high-rollers count on us to bail them out when the dice come up snake eyes? On closer look, however, his objections may not hold up. The mortgage interest deduction, for example, is already limited to interest on $1 million of “acquisition indebtedness” on a primary residence and one additional residence, plus $100,000 of home equity indebtedness. Coburn would ditch the deductions for second homes and home equity interest, and drop the overall cap to $500,000 of indebtedness. But critics respond that over 11% of American homes are valued over $500,000, and limiting the deduction would cut home prices off at the knees at a time when they need all the support they can get.

Coburn’s objections to deducting rental real estate expenses and even gambling losses seem to make less sense. Paying tax on gross rents and gambling winnings? Rental real estate losses are already limited by “passive activity” rules. If millionaires can’t deduct their rental real estate expenses, they won’t invest in real estate at all. That would drag prices down in the same way as limiting mortgage interest deductions. And gambling losses are deductible only to the extent of gambling winnings. Is it fair to tax anyone, millionaire or not, on gross winnings without letting them net out losses?

As the economy continues to struggle, Washington gridlock intensifies — just look at the bickering over the payroll tax cut extension, which both parties say they want. And the 2012 presidential election draws near, we can expect to hear more rhetoric like Coburn’s. What do you think? Do tax breaks for millionaires offend your sense of fairness? Or should millionaires get to take advantage of the same rules as the rest of us?