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EDITORIAL: Lower refunds don’t translate into higher federal income taxes

Kamala Harris seeks the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, yet she seems to lack a rudimentary grasp of basic math and how the federal government collects income taxes.

On Monday, the junior U.S. senator from California took to Twitter to rail against the Trump tax cuts. “The average tax refund is down about $170 compared to last year,” she wrote. “Let’s call the president’s tax cut what it is: a middle-class tax hike to line the pockets of already wealthy corporations and the 1%.”

Well … no.

Sen. Harris nails the progressive buzzwords, but she is clearly confused about the relationship between a refund check and the amount of federal income tax an individual wage earner pays. In her defense, her ignorance is widespread.

The Washington Post reported last week that “People have already taken to social media, using the hashtag #GOPTaxScam, to vent their anger” over smaller refund checks. “Many blame President (Donald) Trump and Republicans for shrinking refunds.”

It isn’t until halfway through the story that the Post gets to the crux of the matter: Lower refund checks don’t equate to higher tax hikes. The vast majority of American filers — about 80 percent — received a tax cut last year in the form of increased take-home pay and less in federal income taxes being confiscated from their paychecks each pay period.

The Trump tax law resulted in slightly different IRS withholding schedules. Taxpayers are always free to adjust their federal withholding levels to ensure they receive a refund of a desired amount, break even or owe money. But some taxpayers obviously didn’t bother to check.

While it’s true that many Americans count on refunds as a sort of alternative savings mechanism, tax experts point out the pitfalls of leaving too much of your money in Washington’s hands.

“Getting a tax refund,” Nicole Keading of the Tax Foundation told the Post, “means that you gave the government an interest-free loan because you overpaid your taxes.” As Joseph Rosenberg, a senior research associate with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, put it in the Post report, “It’s a mystery why people seem to be comfortable — and even happy — with getting refund checks.”

Sen. Harris and her fellow Democrats are free to attack GOP tax relief and argue they are better stewards of the nation’s wealth than the hardworking American taxpayers who earned it. But her assertion that smaller refund checks reflect a “tax hike” on the “middle class” is ill-informed, patently false poppycock.

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