Sammy Slammin’ Tax System

Lobbyists May Stop Uncle Sam’s Extra Bites Of Players’ Income

Posted October 24, 2003 at 5:18pm

Maybe there’s a silver lining to the fact that the Chicago Cubs didn’t make it to the World Series.

If they had, slugger Sammy Sosa and his teammates would have been forced to pay thousands of dollars in additional taxes under a quirky Illinois law that is shaping up to be a major-league fight on Capitol Hill for next year.

At issue is a decision made by Illinois tax authorities to require players for the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Blackhawks and other in-state professional sports teams to pay state income taxes on their entire salaries — even though the players already pay a share of their income taxes to New York, California and other states where they play road games.

Under the bizarre double-tax system, if the Cubs had played in the World Series against the New York Yankees, Sosa and his Cubs teammates would have been required to pay state income taxes in both Illinois and New York.

As it was, Cubs players were double taxed when they traveled to Atlanta to beat the Braves in the first round of Major League Baseball’s playoffs.

Since Illinois is the only state that seeks all of the income taxes from its professional athletes, Sosa filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Revenue earlier this year seeking $38,169 in overpaid taxes on his $10 million-per-year salary since 1998.

Though a Cook County judge rejected the suit, Sosa — assisted by the Major League Baseball Players Association — has appealed the decision.

Sosa is not the only player who believes Illinois has created an unlevel playing field.

More than 60 other players have filed administrative appeals with Illinois, including former White Sox slugger Albert Belle, a retired player who is seeking more than $90,000 in overpaid taxes.

If Sosa loses his appeal, he and the players association are likely to come to Washington for help.

“There has been some discussion about the possibility of seeking federal legislation,” said Doyle Pryor, an attorney with the players association. “But nothing has been introduced yet.”

Even if Sosa wins his court case in Illinois, baseball players, other professional athletes and rock stars may seek legislation to simplify the way they pay state income taxes for ballgames and concerts across the country.

According to federal law, taxpayers are required to pay a proportionate share of their state taxes in the jurisdictions where they work.

In other words, a subway operator in Washington, D.C., who spends one-third of his day in Maryland should pay one-third of his state taxes to Maryland.

Likewise, professional athletes must pay a portion of their tax bills to various states.

In 1998, for example, Sosa paid $65,316 in taxes to California, New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Missouri for games against the Padres, Dodgers, Giants, Mets, Phillies, Rockies and Cardinals.

One baseball lobbyist said the players may seek a legislative remedy from Congress “so we don’t have to pay accountants thousands of dollars to do our taxes.”

If there is legislative action, it will not be the first time that Congress has intervened in such an issue.

Years ago, Congress blocked the state of Nebraska from trying to collect taxes from airline pilots for the portions of flights over the state.

If the baseball players need assistance from Washington this time, they will turn to a seasoned roster of Washington lobbyists, including Kevin McGuiness of McGuiness & Holch and Joel Johnson of the Harbour Group.

Other players association lobbyists include John Yarowsky of Patton Boggs and Thurgood Marshall Jr. of Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman LLP.

So far, no legislation has been drafted or introduced, and the lobbyists have not begun highlighting the double tax. “We might win — we expect to win — in court,” Pryor said.

Nevertheless, the player’s representatives are warming up in the legislative bullpen — just in case.