Big Bird’s Taxes: Little Relief Promised in Romney’s Tax Cuts

Photograph by Everett Collection

Big Bird, who lists taxable wages of about $280,000, may not get much of a tax break from Romney.

If Mitt Romney gets elected president, Big Bird and his Sesame Street colleagues may have to go out and hustle donations to keep stations airing their show operating.

Big Bird, who lists taxable wages of about $280,000 on the IRS filing of his non-profit employer, Sesame Workshop Inc., also may not get much of a tax break for all Romney’s promises to lower rates.

Big Bird, aka Caroll Spinney, would lose much of the savings in a lower income tax rate proposed by Romney if the former Massachusetts governor follows through with an idea to cap deductions at $17,000, according to Clay Batchelor, a Washington DC tax attorney. (And the Romney campaign may like to know that Defense spending is jeopardized by the candidate’s pledge to eliminate federal aid for Sesame Street in a PBS cut-off.)

Under Obama’s tax proposal, which would allow Bush-era tax cuts for higher earners to expire, the worker who plays the yellow-feathered icon would pay about $48,500 in personal income tax, assuming he has $50,000 in deductions, a reasonable amount for someone in his income bracket, Batchelor said.

That compares with about $47,000 under the under Romney’s tax proposal, if the Republican candidate is elected and can deliver his idea to cap deductions at $17,000.

“If he can’t claim as many deductions, his tax number may wind up being about the same,” said Batchelor. The deduction cap would hit middle and upper income taxpayers hardest, he said.

Romney proposes lowering top rates to 22.4, 26.4 and 28 percent, compared with 33, 36 and 39.6 percent in the Obama plan, which allows Bush-era tax cuts to expire for high earners.

Big Bird’s tax bill drops to about $39,000 if he can use Romney’s tax rate and $50,000 in deductions.

Batchelor’s back of the envelope calculations assume no other investments and a married joint filing.

Spinney, 78, who also created Oscar the Grouch, declined to comment through Sesame Workshop.

“Unfortunately, Big Bird is not doing interviews,” said Sherrie Westin, vice president and chief market officer of Sesame Workshop, which has called upon the Obama campaign to pull its cable TV ad featuring Big Bird in its Romney attack.

Big Bird became an unlikely player in presidential politics during the Oct. 3 Romney-Obama debate, when Romney declared that he could make tough decisions, like cutting federal support for the Public Broadcasting Service.

“I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS,” Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, of the PBS NewsHour. “I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

The story line got legs when Obama seized on Romney’s comment to illustrate what he portrayed as is his opponent’s willingness to overlook big problems in favor of less pressing issues.

“He’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street,” Obama said Oct. 4 at a campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin.

Over the weekend, Big Bird appeared on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and on Tuesday, the Obama campaign rolled out its satirical ad featuring an image of the gangly bird amid pictures of Bernard Madoff, Kenneth Lay, of Enron Corp. and Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International Ltd., who all were convicted of large-scale financial crimes.

“Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy,” the narrator says. “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to

worry about, it’s Sesame Street.”

The ad didn’t amuse either Sesame Workshop, which asked the Obama campaign to stop airing the ad, or the Romney campaign.

PBS doesn’t actually produce Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop is a separate entity that produces and licenses the show.

Out of Sesame Workshop’s $140 million operating budget, about $1.5 million annually comes from PBS via a licensing fee, which is the net of PBS’s share of Sesame Street merchandising and sponsorship revenue.

Sesame Workshop has gotten federal government money in the form of about $12.3 million in contracts over the past 10 years, including a high of $3.68 million in fiscal 2008, when President George W. Bush was in office.

Most of the money came from the Defense Department, which has used the Sesame Street characters in videos to help children through transitions and separations.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports PBS and National Public Radio, got about $445 million in fiscal 2012 from the federal government.

Spinney has performed as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouchm in over 4,000 episodes of Sesame Street, beginning with the first show in 1969, according to the show’s Web site. Spinney co-authored a 2003 book called The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers.

Danielle Ivory contributed to this post


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