The case for a tax cut is a distinct issue from repaying the recent large budget deficits and balancing the budget over the business cycle.
Ministers of Finance should pay more attention to the concept of tax smoothing. Unless something special is happening, income tax rates should be similar from one year to another. We should keep tax rates fairly smooth by borrowing during recessions and emergencies.
Instead, the Government not indexing the income tax thresholds for inflation collected $2.1 billion in extra revenue since 2008 according to Parliamentary Library calculations. Raising the income tax rate thresholds is becoming more pressing. Income growth is starting to push many ordinary taxpayers uncomfortably close to the next threshold and a much higher marginal tax rate. For example, 30% rather than the 17.5% income tax rate many taxpayers face.
New Zealand is already left behind on company tax rates; ours is currently 28%. The Australian company tax rate may drop to 25%; the British company tax rate is going down to 17% by 2020.
Large public deficits have their place
Prudent public debt management dictates that governments run temporary budget deficits in recessions and other emergencies such as the Canterbury earthquake and repay that debt as better times return. Recessions and natural disasters are infrequent so this extra debt should be paid down at a measured speed, not a frantic pace at the expense of other tax policy goals.
An increase in the budget deficit smooths over these bad times and avoids taxes going up and down like a Jack-in-the-Box over the business cycle. Who raises taxes in a recession?
Beware of foul-weather fiscal conservatives
After the start of the recession in 2009, foul weather fiscal conservatives wanted to do just that. The same usual suspects who always advocate bigger government argued for higher taxes rather than running a larger budget deficit, which New Zealand did. Imagine the massive income tax rises required every recession and in the last recession in particular if the large budget deficits were not run?
The large public debt from the temporary budget deficits that smoothed over the last recession is no special or additional reason to postpone income tax cuts. A sound long-term fiscal strategy has tax rates at levels that make up on the deficits in bad times with surpluses in the good times. Slowly repaying debts accumulated in a recession is a routine part of prudent public debt management.
There is room for tax cuts
Every budget allocates about $1.5 billion for new policy proposals that can be adopted without the Treasury thinking that they might harm long-term fiscal stability.
New Zealand budget allows for up to $1.5 billion on new policies every year. If this new spending was justified despite the large public debt from the recent recession, some tax cuts are too. They could start with raising the income tax rate thresholds to make up for past inflation.