The massive tax cut legislation Congress is poised to start voting on today remains terrible public policy. It raises the federal debt by more than $1.4 trillion over the next decade, and it primarily benefits businesses and the wealthy over the poor and middle class. Yet it could have been worse, and Sen. Marco Rubio’s successful effort to improve the child tax credit is one example of how negotiators sanded off some of the roughest edges before the final votes.
Rubio delivered a rare ultimatum last week, telling Senate leaders he would vote against the final tax cut legislation unless the child tax credit was improved. The Florida Republican had failed to persuade the Senate to slightly reduce the cut in the corporate tax rate to make the child tax credit fully refundable, which would have benefited 9 million low-income Americans. Instead, congressional negotiators callously used the savings from the adjustment in the corporate tax rate to help pay for higher tax cuts for the wealthy.
In the end, Rubio did not get everything he wanted — but he got something. The child tax credit, which will be raised from the current $1,000 per child to $2,000 per child, will not be entirely refundable as he first sought. But Rubio’s power play resulted in $1,400 of the credit being refundable, a $300 increase from what had been in the bill. That is not insignificant, and as Rubio tweeted after the deal was made, making 70 percent of the tax credit refundable ‘‘is a solid step toward broader reforms which are both pro-growth and pro-worker. But there is still much more to do in the months and years to come.’’
Other issues that would have harmed Tampa Bay disappeared in the final tax cut legislation the House is expected to approve today. A provision from the House version that would have enabled churches and nonprofits to endorse political candidates was removed. That was particularly important for Pinellas County, where the Church of Scientology already wields too much influence over Clearwater with its large property holdings and sharp elbows.
Various efforts to eliminate certain types of bonds and tax credits also faded away. Private activity bonds, which are used to fund big construction projects at Tampa International Airport, colleges and universities, and nonprofit hospitals are preserved. So are tax-exempt bonds used to build or renovate professional stadiums, an important save as talks heat up next year about building a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. New Markets Tax Credits, which have helped Tampa’s Metropolitan Ministries and other projects aimed at reducing blight, and affordable housing tax credits were saved. So were tax credits for historic preservation, although they will be spread over a longer period. These provisions collectively are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but they help cover the cost of projects that improve the public and cultural life for communities throughout Tampa Bay and the nation.
More broadly, congressional negotiators removed some of the other high-profile, punitive provisions from the final bill. The House’s attempts to tax graduate school tuition waivers and employer-paid tuition were taken out. Teachers also still will be able to take the $250 deduction for personal money they spend on classroom supplies.
Overall, this tax cut package remains unnecessary and too expensive. It won’t come close to paying for itself, and it is based on the flawed theory that tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy trickle down to produce higher wages and lots of jobs for the poor and middle class. But Republicans appear to have the votes to pass the legislation, and the modest silver lining is that Rubio and others made positive changes to take a little of the sting out of it.