The Olympic Tax Exemption: It Gets Worse


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When news broke last week that a Senator on the GOP vice presidential short list had introduced one of the dumbest, most opportunistic and transparently political pieces of tax legislation of all time, we wrote:

How, at a time when Congress faces vital decisions over the basic structure of our tax system, did the Senator identify the tax treatment of Olympic bonuses as a pressing issue? It turns out that Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) put out a press release saying that medal winners will face a tax bill of almost $9,000 if they win a gold medal.  Rubio’s spokesperson said that’s what caught Rubio’s eye. But the ATR numbers are complete bunk….

And then, in a facepalm moment to eclipse all others (for us, anyway), President Obama said this week that he would sign Senator Rubio’s utterly stupid bill exempting Olympic winnings from taxes if it reached his desk. The President’s spokesman said we should “ensure that we are doing everything we can to honor and support our Olympic athletes who have volunteered to represent our nation at the Olympic Games.”

The young Senator’s Olympic Tax Elimination Act, however, may not have such an easy journey to the President’s desk.  GOP Senator Tom Coburn’s office said, “If tax code gymnastics was an Olympic sport this idea might get a medal.  Like the carve outs for NASCAR, rum makers and electric motorcycles, tax earmarks are a tax increase for everyone who doesn't receive the benefit.”

In a more elaborate argument against this new bill, wonk blogger Matthew Yglesias makes the important point that “taxes aren’t supposed to be a cosmic judgment on the underlying worthiness of people’s activities.” They are supposed to raise revenues, but as long as Congress keeps using the tax system to dole out favors, hope for the kind reform we need are slim. “[P]oliticians have to be willing to actually articulate the benefits of a broad tax base—less evasion, less distortion of economic resources, the possibility of lower rates—and Democrats in particular need to be willing to make the case that public services are worth paying for.”

Best of all, here a CPA who happens to have prepared some Olympians’ returns explains the obvious. He identifies a massive loophole and notes that the bill, “as currently written, would exclude all of these bonuses from taxation.” By these bonuses, he means massive amounts of money from corporate endorsements (e.g. their picture on a box of Wheaties) Olympic medalists receive. And the bigger your endorsement, the bigger the tax break.

We’re’ rooting for common sense.

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