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GOP tax plan trashes the value of two popular tax breaks

  • Doubling the standard deduction would reduce the use of tax breaks for homeownership and donating to charities.
  • Just 20 percent of tax returns currently claim those deductions.
  • Nonprofits and homebuilders worry that having no tax incentive would negatively impact real estate and charitable giving.

The Republican tax reform plan being unveiled Wednesday shows that while two popular deductions would remain intact, they'd become useless to the majority of taxpayers who now take advantage of them.

GOP lawmakers want to retain the tax breaks for mortgage interest and charitable contributions. Yet given that the plan is to nearly double the standard deduction, "many current itemizers would choose that instead, so a lot less people would use those deductions," said Joseph Rosenberg, a senior research associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

Currently, taxpayers choose between the standard deduction or itemized deductions and use whichever amount is greater to reduce their tax bill. For 2017, the standard deduction is $6,350 for individual taxpayers, $9,350 for heads of households and $12,700 for joint filers.

In other words, if those amounts nearly double, a married couple would need deductions to exceed $24,000 to make itemizing worthwhile.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that of the 45 million tax filers who itemize, 38 million, or 84 percent, would opt for the $24,000 standard deduction because it would exceed the combined value of other deductions available to them.

Who uses the mortgage interest deduction, by income

Income range*
# of filings
Total amount
0 to $50,000 2.32 million $1.11 billion
$50,000 to $100,000 9.77 million $9.19 billion
$100,000 to $200,000 14.6 million $24.85 billion
$200,000 & up 7.18 million $29.78 billion
Totals: 33.87 million $64.93 billion
Source: 2016 data from Joint Committee on Taxation report. *Income ranges include AGI plus variety of untaxed items (i.e., employer contributions to health care plan, nontaxable social security benefits, etc.)

The deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions have been a political third rail in the past, due largely to the idea that they spur homeownership and charitable giving. Yet of all taxpayers, only about 20 percent take advantage of each deduction for mortgage interest and charitable contributions, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Of the roughly one-third of taxpayers who do itemize, roughly three-quarters use each of the deductions. The biggest benefits tend to go to higher-income taxpayers.

For instance, the 7.18 million filers with incomes of $200,000 or more will reduce their taxable income by $29.78 billion this year from using the mortgage interest deduction, according to tax expenditure estimates from the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

Charitable giving deduction use by income

Income range
# of filings
Total amount
0 to $50,000 2.38 million $526 million
$50,000 to $100,000 10 million $4.37 billion
$100,000 to $200,000 15.2 million $11.93 billion
$200,000 $ up 8.2 million $40.73 billion
Totals: 35.8 million $57.55 billion
Source: 2016 data from Joint Committee on Taxation report. *Income ranges include AGI plus variety of untaxed items (i.e., employer contributions to health care plan, nontaxable social security benefits, etc.)

In comparison, the 14.6 million filers with incomes of $100,000 to $200,000 will save less: $24.85 billion. Filers with incomes below that have even smaller tax savings.

Likewise, the 8.2 million filers with incomes above $200,000 will save a collective $40.7 billion this year by using the charitable deduction. The 15.2 million filers with incomes of $100,000 to $200,000 will reduce their tax bill by $11.9 billion.

Nonprofit groups and the homebuilding industry are concerned about what reduced utilization of those deductions would mean for homeownership and charitable giving.

"It marginalizes the mortgage interest deduction," said J.P. Delmore, assistant vice president of government affairs at the National Association of Home Builders. "We'd see the effect where a small number of homeowners would benefit, and that's not the direction anyone is looking to go with tax reform."

Cost of select tax deductions

Deduction
Cost 2016-2020
Mortgage interest $357 billion
State and local taxes $368.8 billion
Charitable contributions* $230.5 billion
Property taxes $180 billion
Medical & long-term care expenses $56.6 billion
Student loan interest $11.9 billion
Teacher classroom expenses $1.2 billion
Source: Joint Committee on Taxation Jan, 30, 2017 report *Excludes education- and health-related donations

The National Association of Realtors also has expressed concern that home prices would suffer if the mortgage interest deduction were to become useless to most homeowners.

The group released a study in May showing that if elements similar to a 2016 version of the GOP's tax plan went into effect, home values would fall by more than 10.2 percent on average in the near term.

The study also found that homeowners with income of $50,000 to $200,000 would face an average tax increase of $815 while nonhomeowners in that range would get an average tax cut of $516.

"This is an emerging issue [lawmakers] don't intend to create," Delmore said. "But we hope there's an opportunity to find a solution so that homeowners have a meaningful tax incentive that doesn't involve being marginalized and benefiting only the wealthy."

WATCH: What we know about the Republican tax plan so far