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Mark Schoeff Jr. looks at what's really happening on Capitol Hill - and the upshot for advisers.

Romney, Ryan continue to dance around tax plan details

Could retirement-savings tax deferrals land on chopping block?

Sep 10, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

By Mark Schoeff Jr.

Taxes, Romney
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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (Bloomberg)

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, seem determined to avoid talking about details of their tax plan during the fall campaign, creating a vacuum that their opponents are happy to fill with attacks and that retirement-savings advocates can fill with worry.

It's not surprising that the GOP standard bearers used hazy rhetoric during the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., two weeks ago. When each had the chance to go into more depth during Sunday-morning talks shows on Sept. 9, they stuck to generalities.

On NBC's “Meet the Press,” Mr. Romney tried to assure viewers – and voters – that his goal with a 20% across-the-board tax reduction was not to ease the tax burden on the rich. Instead, he is going to limit the ways they can avoid taxes.

“Well, I can tell you that people at the high end, high income taxpayers, are going to have fewer deductions and exemptions,” Mr. Romney told host David Gregory. “Otherwise, they'd get a tax break. I'm bringing down the rate of taxation, but also bringing down deductions and exemptions at the high end so the revenues stay the same, the taxes people pay stay the same.”

His running mate offered a little nuance during his appearance on ABC's “This Week.”

“Now the question is, not necessarily what loopholes go, but who gets them,” Mr. Ryan told host George Stephanopoulous. “High-income earners use most of the loopholes. That means they can shelter their income from taxation. But if you take those loopholes, those tax shelters away from high-income earners, more of their income is subject to taxation. And that allows us to lower tax rates on everybody -- small businesses, families, economic growth.”

As the top of the GOP ticket spoke in broad outlines, the Obama campaign jumped into the void.

“Here's what they're hiding from: because there are simply not enough loopholes for the wealthy in the federal budget that Mitt Romney could eliminate to pay for his tax cut, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that his tax plan could only be paid for by limiting popular tax deductions like the mortgage interest deduction, which would raise taxes on the average middle class family with kids by $2,000 a year,” the Obama campaign said in a statement on Sunday.

Retirement-savings tax deferrals also could be on the chopping block. It's a prospect that appeared in late 2010, when the presidential deficit commission suggested significantly curtailing the deferrals to pay for broadening the tax base and lowering rates – a goal of many Republicans and Democrats.

Judy Miller, director of retirement policy at the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries, notes that retirement-savings tax deferrals already are capped at $250,000 of income, and there's a limit on the amount of money that can be put into retirement plans annually.

The lack of specifics in the campaign about whittling tax breaks means talk could encompass retirement savings. The ASPPA is ready to defend that part of the tax code.

"Most Americans save in a workplace plan," Ms. Miller said. "If there's no incentive for a small business owner to put in a plan, we would likely see a decline in the availability of plans."

The issue of retirement security during the campaign has been relegated to political attacks over Medicare rather than a discussion of how to get Americans to save more.

“A lot of people think first about health care,” Christine Marcks, president of Prudential Retirement, told reporters at a Washington meeting on Sept. 6. “It's very, very immediate. Retirement is something that is off in the future.”

Ms. Marcks declined to comment on presidential politics. But she did emphasize a point that many advocates are making to defend the tax breaks for retirement savings – taxes will be paid when retirees draw down their nest eggs.

“In retirement plans, it's a tax deferral,” Ms. Marcks said.

It's unlikely that presidential campaign rhetoric will even get into that level of detail over the next eight weeks. We won't learn much more than we did from the political conventions.

“The theme walking away from the conventions is that there is a tremendous amount of tax uncertainty,” said Bill Lowe, president of Sammons Retirement Solutions Inc.

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