Delegating Up: State Conformity with the Federal Tax Base


Congress uses the income tax to achieve policy goals. States import federal tax policies into their own tax systems when they incorporate by reference the federal income tax base as the starting point for assessment of state income taxes. But federal tax policies reflect national, not state, political choices. This Article calls attention to the practice of tax-base conformity and to its advantages and disadvantages. Conformity conserves legislative, administrative, and judicial resources, and it reduces taxpayers’ compliance burdens. At the same time, however, conforming states cede tax autonomy to the federal government, thereby jeopardizing federalism values, such as regulatory diversity and diffusion of power. Conforming states also expose themselves to revenue volatility stemming from the ever-changing federal tax law. Despite these concerns, the administrative and compliance advantages of federal-state tax-base conformity are so significant that states are unlikely to abandon it. Thus, this Article makes only limited recommendations for reducing the adverse impacts of tax-base conformity.

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