CHICAGO -- Governments are looking to tax the likes of Michael Jordan, Bobby Bonilla, Joe Montana, and Wayne Gretzky to help bail out their budgets.
The so-called jock tax, an increasingly popular measure among cities and states, is an attempt to apply income taxes to the salaries of professional basketball, baseball, football, and hockey players from visiting teams.
Government officials say it is just a way to make sure the tax base includes a high-income group that has been slipping through the cracks. But professional athletes groups call the tax collection an unfair pain in the neck.
One professional sports official said the recession and cuts in federal funding explain governments' pursuit of high-profile athletes' salaries.
The pickings certainly appear rich. With a $6.1 million salary for the 1992 season, for example, Mr. Bonilla is baseball's highest-paid player. And Mr. Gretzky is in the fifth year of a record 10-year, $31.32 million contract with the National Hockey League.
The official argued, however, that taxes on such athletes would reap insignificant revenues.
"What's going on is states and cities are starved for money, and it's really easy to get somebody like a professional athlete," the official said. "But [taxing athletes' salaries] never produces enough income to spit at."
Government and sports officials said cities targeting athletes' salaries are Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York, and Philadelphia, and states doing the same are California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
James W. Wetzler, New York State's commissioner of taxation and finance, defended the practice, saying that because athletes are earning "so much income," the public expects the state to enforce collection of income taxes on the players' salaries.
Mr. Wetzler chairs the 12-state task force of the Federation of Tax Administrators that met in June with representatives of sports leagues and players associations to try to work out a compromise. He said the concern is over inconsistent practices among governments on taxing athletes' salaries, which could result in double taxation for some players or the loss of tax revenues for some governments.
Said Tim English, a staff attorney with the National Football League Players Association, "The whole thing is such a frustrated, tangled mess."
Illinois is the latest state to enact a jock tax, but only on a retaliatory basis to recoup the income tax revenues it loses to other states. On July 29, Gov. Jim Edgar signed a law that allows the state to collect a 3% income tax on the salaries of professional sports team members who play in Illinois if their home state also collects a tax from members of Illinois teams.
Phil Wyatt, legislative liaison for the Illinois Department of Revenue, said the state legislature put together the bill after it became known that California was taxing the salaries of Chicago Bulls basketball players during their 1991 playoff with the Lost Angeles Lakers.
Mr. Wyatt said the new law sends a message: "Don't tax our athletes and we won't tax yours." He pointed out that before the law was passed, the state was losing income tax revenues from athletes because they are able to claim a tax credit from Illinois for the income taxes they paid in other states.
"The law allows Illinois taxes to remain in Illinois," he added.
Other governments, like Philadelphia's, are spreading their income tax net wider to catch new revenues to help ease financial problems. Alfred A. Outlaw, the city's revenue commissioner, said his department was expanding its efforts to collect a 4.31% city income tax on visiting athletes, as well as on other professionals like doctors and lawyers who perform services in Philadelphia.
Mr. Outlaw estimated the city could gain $1 million a year by applying the tax to opposing team members' salaries. The city is in the process of discussing the tax with the affected parties, who Mr. Outlaw said are "not too pleased" with the city's plan.
A budget shortfall in Cleveland last year also led that city to step up its collection of a 2% city income tax on opposing baseball and football team players.
Don Fehr, an executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said players are concerned about the burden of filling "a multiplicity of eight, nine, 12, 15 income tax returns.
"We think a better way to do things is to assign all of the players' income to the place where they play all the time," Mr. Fehr said.
That is one option under consideration by the task force, said Mr. Wetzler, who added that it would cut down the number of the tax filings for players to two: one for the taxing district where they play, and one for the district in which they live. Such a practice would result in a wash for governments, he said.
A second option is to adopt a uniform taxing formula among the governments, he added. Currently, some governments tax visiting players on a per-game basis, while others tax on a broader basis that counts so-called duty days, which the player needs to prepare for the game. A third option is to have athletes file one state return and have that state share the money with other states based on where the athlete played, Mr. Wetzler said.
While both sides recognize the taxing continues in an uncoordinated fashion, U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., a former National Basketball Association player, may act to force a compromise. Mr. Wetzler said the senator has been expressing some concern over the current system.
"Unless we act to try to address the problem, there is a possibility that Congress may preempt us," Mr. Wetzler commented.
He said that while the task force hopes for a solution by year's end, getting governments to embrace that solution will not be easy.
"We're eager to work out some solution," Mr. Wetzler said. "It's always difficult to get diverse states to agree on something, but we're going to try."