By Adam Shaw
Published February 14, 2019
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a 2020 presidential hopeful, is under fire for claiming that lower tax refunds are a sign that the Trump tax cuts are “a middle-class tax hike” -- something a top fact-checker described as “nonsensical and misleading.”
“The average tax refund is down about $170 compared to last year. 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 percent,” she said in a tweet.
Harris was apparently reacting to information from initial returns that the average refund is down approximately 8 percent. But, as fact checkers quickly pointed out, the size of one’s refund has more to do with how much was withheld for taxes over the course of the year rather than one’s overall tax burden.
“Boy, talk about a non sequitur that turns out to be nonsensical and misleading,” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler said in a fiery fact-check.
Kessler noted that the 2017 tax law changed withholding tables and raised the standard deduction, while eliminating personal and dependent tax exemptions. And a cap on deductions for real estate taxes and more had a higher impact on high-tax states like Harris' own California.
“But the size of the tax refund has no bearing on whether a person’s taxes rose or fell,” he wrote. “A person might end up giving less of their income to the IRS — and still end up with a smaller tax refund.”
He wrote that a smaller tax refund essentially means you have given less of a loan to the government.
Kessler also cited studies that suggest the middle class is largely receiving a cut. But a Harris spokesman told him the senator was referring to the “long-term effect” of the tax cut, namely that the individual tax cuts expire over a decade. But that presumes that the tax cuts won’t be re-extended by Congress. Even after an email exchange with Harris’ spokesman, Kessler was unconvinced, accusing Harris of combining “two factoids in a highly misleading package” and giving the claim Four Pinnochios.
“Yes, tax refunds are smaller, based on preliminary data. And, yes, in the long run, the Trump tax cut raises taxes on the middle class — if you make the probably unrealistic assumption that Congress will not act to rescue tax cuts for individuals,” he said.
“But Harris presented these facts without nuance or qualification, making it appear as though the smaller tax refunds were evidence of a tax hike on the middle class,” he wrote. “In reality, the size of a tax refund reflects nothing about the size of a tax cut or tax increase — and at least in 2018, the vast majority of middle-class Americans can expect to pay less in taxes as a result of the Trump tax law.”