Gov. Cuomo, middle, and Comptroller DiNapoli, right (photo: Governor's office)
In the last few months, Governor Andrew Cuomo and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli have raised red flags about the impact of the 2017 federal tax overhaul ushered through by President Trump and Republicans in Congress. Chiefly, they said that a new $10,000 cap on the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction has led to a massive drop in revenue and is likely being accompanied by increased outmigration of high-earning New Yorkers to states with lower taxes.
But Cuomo and DiNapoli never provided concrete proof of the alleged trend and a new report undercuts their claim, to an extent, showing that New Yorkers have not been leaving the state because of the SALT cap but rather as part of continuing demographic trends and shifts in job markets.
Moody’s Investors Service, a leading ratings agency, released a report on Monday that said there are “no discernible signs” that the change in the SALT deduction is leading to people moving out of high-tax states, and notes that the impact of the new cap “will be felt widely for the first time this tax season and possibly spur some out-migration, but jobs and demographic trends will continue to influence relocation patterns more than tax burdens.”
The initial findings, based on 2017 data, fly in the face of the governor’s more definitive claims that the federal tax reforms -- which largely benefited corporations and wealthy individuals -- were leading to outmigration from high-tax Democratic states like New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, where high-income earners make up a large part of the revenue base.
“We hope Moody’s is right, but with the first filing deadline post-SALT still upcoming, we are in the first inning of a long game,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, which is under Cuomo. “By the federal government’s own calculation, the cap on SALT is a more than $600 billion tax hike that will be borne overwhelmingly by New York and similarly situated states, making it an attack on the work we have done to strengthen New York State’ economy with a 2 percent limit on annual State spending growth, a cap on local property taxes, and a tax cut for every New Yorker.”
Brian Butry, a spokesperson for DiNapoli, said in an email, “As New Yorkers finalize their taxes, some are learning for the first time the impact of the SALT cap. The jury remains out on what the long-term effect will be.”
At a February 4 news conference, Cuomo and DiNapoli made a dire announcement that personal income taxes had come in $2.3 billion lower in December and January than the prior year, warning that even a small amount of outmigration of high-income residents would have a significant impact on state revenue. The SALT cap, they said, cost the state $14.3 billion in total.
“SALT encourages high-income New Yorkers to move to other states,” Cuomo said, using his typical and misleading shorthand of “SALT” to mean the new cap on SALT deductions (the governor also regularly says that SALT was ended, when it has been capped). “And what you have to remember is even if a small number of high-income taxpayers leave, it has a dramatic effect on this tax space.”
He continued, “Taxpayers are adjusting in response to SALT....We have been hearing all along from the major accounting firms, to major individuals, that this is going to be the tipping point and that people now will be making a decision to make a geographic location change. And the SALT provision, remember, did not go into effect yesterday. It had over one year to adjust, so you didn't have to move on 24 hours' notice. You had one year to start to plan a move. And it goes into effect this April, so if you had to move or decided to move, now is the time that you would do it.”
DiNapoli was less forceful in making that argument that day. “We certainly have all heard anecdotally, as the Governor pointed out, people who say they're going to change their legal address, and I think these numbers show that in fact that is probably a big part of the picture,” he said, while acknowledging that several other factors, including volatility in the financial markets were to blame for the recent revenue decrease.
In a March 13 interview on WBAI radio with Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max and City Limits’ Jarrett Murphy, DiNapoli continued that line of reasoning while maintaining that he would need to examine months of data from the Department of Taxation and Finance before coming to a firm conclusion. “I do think that is a piece and probably a very significant piece, of what’s happening,” he said of the alleged SALT cap impact on taxpayer behavior and state revenue. “We’re gonna need more months of data....My instinct tells me the governor was on the right track, that the biggest piece of the shortfall was the response to the adjustment in federal tax reform.”
[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (March 2019)]
The Moody’s report, however, points out using Census Bureau data that migration rates between 2012 and 2017 in the five states where “the SALT deduction represents the largest share of total federal adjusted gross income” -- California, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York -- “are below pre-recession levels and generally follow the US as a whole.” The report notes that it is too early to gauge if the federal tax law has affected migration, contrary to what Cuomo and, to a lesser degree, DiNapoli have said. The report also said that people are generally moving from one high-tax state to another.
“In 2017, 25%-30% of people who moved out of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey moved to another one of the five high-tax states,” the report reads. “The most popular destination for people moving out of New Jersey and Connecticut was New York.”
The report does confirm long-running concerns from Cuomo and others about migration of New Yorkers to Florida, a state with far lower taxes. Moody’s noted that 14% of people who moved out of New York in 2017 went to the Sunshine State. But, those who moved were not primarily driven by lower taxes but rather by job opportunities, climate, and housing costs, the report said. The trend of New Yorkers moving to Florida is nothing new, however. Overall, New Yorkers have consistently been leaving the state since at least 1961, according to the Empire Center, a think tank, and the state saw a net loss of more than 1 million people between 2010 and July 2017.