Tax Reform Rehash

The release of Finance Committee tax reform discussion drafts on cost recovery and international tax have laid bare a reality that’s been hiding just below the surface for two years now the visions for reform embraced by the key House and Senate tax writing committees are dramatically different and move in opposite directions.

The international drafts are a good example. The Ways and Means draft would move the tax treatment of overseas income towards a territorial system, while the Baucus draft would move towards a more pure worldwide system by largely eliminating deferral. Here’s how the Tax Foundation described it:

Of the 34 most advanced countries, 28 use a territorial tax system, while only 6, including the U.S., use a worldwide tax system with deferral. No developed country imposes a worldwide tax system without deferral, though some have tried it with near disastrous effects.

Exactly how the two committees could bridge these broad differences in vision is unclear.

For pass-through businesses, the differences are just as stark. Neither committee has released details on overall rates or the treatment of pass-through businesses, but both have made clear the general direction they plan to take.

The Ways and Means Committee seeks comprehensive reform where the top rates for individuals, pass- through businesses, and corporations would be lowered and the differences between them reduced, helping to restore the rate parity that existed from 2003 to 2012. Other provisions in Chairman Camp’s draft would seek to close the differing treatment of partnerships and S corporations, creating a stronger, more coherent set of pass-through rules.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus, on the other hand, appears to actively oppose rate reductions for individuals and pass-through businesses even as he constructs his reform package around a core of cutting rates for C corporations. The inherent inconsistency of lowering corporate rates to make US businesses more competitive while simultaneously defending significantly higher rates on pass-through businesses is stark. The Baucus draft does make a vague reference to “considering” the impact on pass-through businesses, but it is clear that consideration amounts to nothing more than increased small business expensing or something similarly limited.

So the Finance Committee would cut corporate rates and ask S corporations and other pass through businesses to help pay for them. In the end, C corporations would pay a top rate of 28 or 25 percent, while pass-through businesses would pay rates 13 to 20 percentage points higher.

How do they justify this disparate treatment? The double tax on corporate income is often raised as leveling factor. As the Washington Post recently reported, “Today, the Treasury estimates, as much as 70 percent of net business income escapes the corporate tax.”

But “escaping” the corporate tax is not the same as escaping taxation. The simple fact is that pass through businesses pay lots of taxes, and they pay those taxes when the income is earned. The study we released earlier this year found that S corporations pay the highest effective tax rate (32 percent) followed by partnerships (29 percent) and then C corporations (27 percent on domestic earnings).

These findings include taxes on corporate dividends, so some of the double tax is included. They do not include capital gains taxes due to data limitations. Including capital gains would certainly close the gap between C and S corporations, but enough to make up 5 percentage points of effective tax? Not likely. Meanwhile, the study focused on US taxes only, so it doesn’t attempt to capture the effects of base erosion or the ability of C corporations to defer taxes on foreign income for long periods of time.

All in all, the argument against pass through businesses is based on some vague notion that these businesses are not paying their fair share. The reality is just the opposite. By our accounting, they pay the most. That means that, all other things being equal, today’s tax burden on S corporations makes them less competitive than their C corporation rival down the street.

Real tax reform would seek to make all business types more competitive by lowering marginal rates while also helping to level out the effective tax rates paid by differing industries and business structures. That’s the basis behind the three core principles for tax reform embraced by 73 business trade associations earlier this year: reform should be comprehensive, lower marginal rates and restore rate parity, and continue to reduce the double tax on corporate income.

These principles are fully embraced by Chairman Camp and the Ways and Means Committee. They appear to have been rejected by the Finance Committee. Which begs the question: What exactly is the goal of the Finance Committee in this process? Is it just to raise tax revenues? You don’t need “reform” to do that.

Whatever their goal, the gap between the House and the Senate is enormous, and unlikely to be closed anytime soon. Chairman Camp continues to press for reforms that would improve our tax code, but he’s going to be hard pressed to find common ground with what’s being outlined in the Senate.

Extenders

With the timeline for tax reform being pushed back, there is a bit more discussion of what to do about tax extenders. The whole package of more than 60 provisions expires at the end of the year and to date there’s been little discussion regarding how or when to extend them. As the Tax Policy Center noted this week:

It isn’t unusual for these mostly-business tax breaks to temporarily disappear, only to come back from the dead a few months after their technical expiration. But this time businesses are more nervous than usual. Their problem: Congress may have few opportunities to continue these so-called extenders in 2014. This doesn’t mean the expiring provisions won’t be brought back to life. In the end, nearly all will. But right now, it is hard to see a clear path for that happening.

While the future is murky as always, a few points of clarity do exist:

  • Nothing will happen before the end of the year. The House will recess this weekend and not return for legislative business until mid-January. Even if it took up extenders promptly after returning, which is highly unlikely, the soonest an extender package can get done would be February or March.
  • Coming up with $50 billion in offsets to replace the lost revenue will also be a challenge. Congress is tackling a permanent Doc Fix right now, which requires nearly three times that level of offsets. Coming up with an additional $50 billion will not be easy.
  • The lack of an AMT patch also is hurting urgency for the package. Congress permanently addressed the Alternative Minimum Tax earlier this year, which is good news, but that action also removed one of the most compelling catalysts for moving the annual extender package. Annually adopting the AMT patch protected 20 million households from higher taxes. That incentive is now gone.

All those points suggest that the business community has a long wait before it can expect to see an extender package move through Congress.

Or does it? One of the most popular extenders is the higher expensing limits under Section 179. This small business provision allows firms to write-off up to $500,000 in capital investments in 2013, as long as their overall amount of qualified investments is $2 million or less.

Beginning in 2014, these limits will drop to $25,000 and $200,000 respectively.

You read that correctly. Starting January, business who invest between $25,000 and $2 million in new equipment will no longer be able to write-off some or all of that cost in year one. Talk about an anti-stimulus. Coupled with the loss of bonus depreciation, the R&E tax credit, and the 5-year holding period for built in gains, and the expiration of extenders will have a measurable effect on the cost of capital investment for smaller and larger businesses alike.

This reality is beginning to sink in both on Main Street and the investment community, where certain industries rely on these provisions as a core part of their business plans in coming years. It’s too soon to see how much momentum the loss of these provisions will generate in coming months, but cutting the expensing limit from $500,000 to $25,000 in one year is bound to attract somebody’s attention.

Fiscal (Slope) Cliff Forecast

While everyone in Washington waits for Tuesday’s election results, this story in The Hill caught our eye: “Fiscal cliff already weighing on economy.” According to the story:

While the expiring tax cuts and automatic spending cuts that make up the cliff do not take effect until the beginning of 2013, Pawlenty said he is hearing from financial firms that businesses are already halting business activity because they are not sure what will happen.

For example, 61 percent of JPMorgan’s U.S. clients are altering their hiring plans because of the cliff, and 42 percent of fund managers for Bank of America identify it as their greatest investment risk.

That’s consistent with what our S-CORP members are telling us. Faced with higher tax rates, uncertain health insurance prospects, and lagging employment growth, the S corporations we hear from are choosing to forego hiring and investment decisions until they feel more confident about the future of public policy and the economy.

This suggests the so-called fiscal cliff is more of a downward slope, and we’re already on it. Employers are holding back, which is suppressing investment and hiring decisions right now, and that’s reflected in the less-than-stellar jobs and GDP numbers we’ve been seeing for the past six months.

That also means that any signal that Congress is prepared to address the cliff and block these tax hikes would help the economy immediately– not just after January 1st.

So, what’s at stake for S corporations? Here’s a short list:

Tax Rates: The best case is that current rates are extended for 2013. The worst case is total gridlock in Congress and rates rise to their pre-2001 levels and beyond. (Beyond because of the tax hikes included in health care reform). Here’s a table summarizing the options:

Top Rates

Worst Case

Best Case

Wage & Salary

44.7%

37.9%

Cap Gains

23.8%

15.0%

Dividends

44.7%

15.0%

Interest

44.7%

35.0%

S Corp Income

44.7%

35.0%

Keep in mind, the best case scenario includes both extending current rates and repealing the new 3.8 percent investment tax imposed under Obamacare. Not impossible if Romney wins and Republicans take the Senate, but not easy either.

AMT: One of the findings in our E&Y study released this summer was the significant number of pass-through owners who pay the AMT. According to E&Y, of the 2.1 million business owners who earn more the $200,000 annually, 900,000 pay the top two tax rates, while 1.2 million pay the AMT. This suggests that the expiration of the so-called AMT patch last year may have more impact on pass-through business owners than the expiration of the lower rates. Treasury estimates that 30 million additional taxpayers will be pulled into the AMT April 15th under the current rules (if the AMT patch remains expired). The findings of E&Y suggest many of those taxpayers are business owners. Business owners most at risk are those with dependent children and those living in high-tax states like New York and California.

Extenders: Congress has gotten into a [bad] habit of ignoring the expiration of all those tax provisions falling under the title of ’extenders’ — the R&E tax credit, the state and local tax deduction, the shorter built-in gains holding period, etc. The Senate Finance Committee has passed a package of extensions, but the House has yet to act. If and how these important issues are addressed during the lame duck are still to be determined, and unfortunately seem to have taken a backseat to dealing with the “must-do” broader 2001/2003 extenders that are set to expire at year’s end.

Those are the tax provisions directly impacting the S corporation community. Couple them with the spending cuts scheduled to begin January 1st, and the total makes up the $700-plus billion fiscal cliff.

What might happen?

Our friends at International Strategy & Investment in the past suggested that the choice before Congress is not “all or nothing” and we agree. Rather than be constrained by the idea that we will either fall off the cliff or step back entirely, our view is that Congress will take a half-step back, avoiding the most damaging pieces of the cliff while allowing others to take effect. Here’s a list with those cliff provisions most likely to be avoided starting at the top:

More Likely

  • AMT
  • Middle-Class Tax Relief
  • Sequestration
  • Doc Fix
  • Tax Extenders
  • Extended UI Benefits
  • Upper Income Tax Relief
  • Health Care Reform Tax Hikes
  • Discretionary Spending

Less Likely

We’ve highlighted the tax rates on upper income taxpayers, including S corporations, since their extension depends almost entirely on who wins the White House. The odds they get extended is close to zero under President Obama, and perhaps 50-50 under a new Romney Administration. Romney has made clear he will push for them, as has the House — it’s the Democrats in the Senate that are the wild card. As for the rest of the provisions, there may be some movement based on the elections, but not much.

In addition to the policies, there’s a question of timing. The general notion is that any deal on the fiscal cliff must occur before the end of 2012, but several of the provisions listed above could just as easily be dealt with in the first few weeks of 2013 with little additional harm to the economy, particularly if Congress and the incoming Administration effectively signaled what they had in mind. Moreover, with only a few weeks between the elections and the holidays, there may simply be insufficient time for the differing parties to come together.

But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to wait. Action immediately after the election to address the entire fiscal cliff — including the top tax rates — would help improve people’s lives now through increased hiring and increased business investment. Congress should act, and act quickly.

But will they? Not if their recent behavior, particularly in the Senate, is any indication. So our best pre-election guess is that Congress will act eventually, but only at the last minute, and that most of the fiscal cliff will be averted either prior to the end of the year or shortly thereafter.

2-Year Extension Set to Pass

Here’s an early Christmas present — the Senate voted this afternoon 81-19 to move forward on the tax deal cut between President Obama and congressional Republicans. We expect the package to pass intact early tomorrow.

For S corporations, the package means the top tax rate on S corporations remains at 35 percent and rates on capital gains and dividends remain at 15 percent for the next two years. On the estate tax front, the plan calls for a top rate of 35 percent and an exemption of $5 million per spouse.

Democratic opposition in the House is coalescing around the estate tax provisions, and if there is an attempt to change the bill, that’s where it’s likely to happen. Leadership there may attempt to raise the tax rate to 45 percent (from 35 percent) while reducing the exemption level from $5 million to $3.5 million. This amendment, however, or any other substantive change to the package, is unlikely to pass for a variety of reasons.

The size of the Senate majority makes it difficult for the opposition to characterize the deal as anything but bipartisan and broadly supported. Moreover, recent polls show the plan is popular with voters, too. According to Chris Cillizza:

Two new national polls out today affirm that political popularity. In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, a whopping 69 percent support the tax package — support that cross party lines with 75 percent of Republicans backing the deal while 68 percent of Democrats and Independents offered their support.

A new Pew poll showed 60 percent supporting it including 62 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents. The simple reality for Democrats writ large — and President Obama more specifically — is that they need a win in the eyes of the American public following a disastrous election that saw the party lose control of the House and lose ground in the Senate.

And finally, the clock is working against the opposition. Any deal blocked now will be taken up and passed by the Republicans when they take control in January. So either this week or first thing next year, a package very similar to what passed the Senate will be adopted by Congress and be signed by the President. Good news indeed!

Republican Opposition

We don’t want to overstate Republican opposition to the deal, but a number of high-profile Republicans are publicly opposing the plan, arguing that the party could do better if it waited until the New Year and the new Congress.

Republicans comprised five of the fifteen votes against cloture on Monday, four of whom appear to have opposed the deal because it could be better — Coburn (OK), DeMint (SC), Ensign (NV), and Sessions (AL).B Meanwhile, a number House Republicans have come out opposed to the package. Representative Steve King (IA) and Michele Bachmann (MN) announced their opposition earlier, and Mike Pence (IN) announced his opposition just yesterday, stating:

 

“I’ve no doubt in my mind that the first order of business for the new Congress [if the compromise does not pass] will be to enact a bill that extends all the current tax rates on a permanent basis,” Pence continued. “We’ll do it. We’ll send it to the Senate if this bill falters. There’s always time to do the right thing.”

 

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also opposed, arguing Republicans should hold out for something permanent.

“Given the unambiguous message that the American people sent to Washington in November, it is difficult to understand how our political leaders could have reached such a disappointing agreement,” Romney wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “The new, more conservative Congress should reach a better solution.”

We’re confident that the Republican House could pass a permanent tax bill. We’re also confident such a bill would stall in the Senate and would be opposed by the Administration. In the meantime, real taxes would be going up on real businesses and estates, starting January 1. Given the circumstances, the agreement achieved by negotiators is as good as the business community could have hoped.

Payroll Tax Hikes Back On The Agenda

Last week, the S corporation community was put on high alert when we received word that an S corporation payroll tax increase similar to the provision from the old Rangel Mother bill (H.R. 3970) was being discussed as an offset to the extender package. The “Mother” provision (see Sec. 1211) would apply payroll taxes to all the service-related income of active shareholders of S corporations primarily engaged in service businesses. While we anticipate that the language of any new provision will differ somewhat from its 2007 predecessor, the general concept remains the same. As CongressDaily noted:

Sources familiar with the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance discussions said applying payroll taxes to certain S corporation profits could raise anywhere from $10 billion to $15 billion, depending on how it is structured. Revenues in that ballpark would go a long way toward closing a $30 billion gap tax-writers need to fill to pay for extensions of numerous expired provisions.

An earlier proposal floated in 2007 was estimated to raise $9.4 billion over a decade by subjecting S corporation and partnership income earned from providing services to payroll taxes, although the new healthcare law would raise the Medicare portion of the tax beginning in 2013 for wealthier earners. The 2007 proposal was scaled back from an earlier option outlined by the Joint Committee on Taxation that would have applied the payroll tax to all S corporation income, estimated to raise $57.4 billion over a decade.

Team S-CORP has had to fight this battle in the past, and we have been in to discuss this provision with Ways and Means on several occasions to get a better idea what they have in mind. Letters sent back in 2007 on behalf of S-CORP as well as our allied trade associations should give you a better sense of the history of this issue.

The future of this particular effort is still very much up in the air. Our communications with the Hill suggest there continues to be strong interest in legislating on this issue — you could characterize this as just one more legacy item left to us by former Senator John Edwards and his law practice — albeit it may take place on a bill other than extenders.

We have pledged to work constructively with taxwriters on a resolution to this issue, but unless they are willing to dramatically pare back the Mother provision to target only bad actors, it is going to be very difficult for business groups to support yet another tax increase on their members.

Stay tuned. More to come.

Latest on Dividends

Whither Tax Rates? The Hill’s On the Money Finance & Economy Blog had an excellent discussion this month on the topic, focusing on the future of dividend rates.
As On the Money notes, “President Barack Obama has proposed that the current rate of 15 percent on dividends be extended for most taxpayers. He’d raise the tax on dividends for individuals making $200,000 or more and families making $250,000 or more to 20 percent. There are several reasons to think wealthier taxpayers will get hit with a much higher tax.”

Meanwhile, The Hill mentions that one possible outcome would be for the dividend tax to fall somewhere between the current 15 percent rate and the top rate on ordinary income. Any divergence from the baseline, however, would require positive action by Congress. As The Hill observes, that’s not something to be taken for granted:

Finally, the lesson of the expired estate tax also has dividend-tax watchers nervous. Congress was expected to extend the estate tax last year, but instead let it expire when Republican and Democratic senators could not reach a compromise. The estate tax is set to kick in again in 2011 at a much higher rate if no action is taken this year.

Also at play is a possible House-Senate dynamic. Our impression is Senate leadership would like to keep capital gains and dividends taxed at the same rates, while their House counterparts are more comfortable seeing the rate on dividends go back to 39.6 percent.

In the end, we believe process will dictate outcome here. The recently enacted ”pay-go” rules require Congress to offset any reduction in the dividend tax rate below 39.6 percent for 2011. Exactly what tax increases would Congress use to offset dividend tax cuts for folks making more than $200,000? We don’t know either, and expect the tax hikes already imbedded in current law will take place as scheduled.

Long To-Do List

Tax policy is in danger of becoming that honey-do list that never gets done. The traditional tax extenders — R&E tax credit, state sales tax deduction, etc. — all expired at the end of last year and, almost five months later, are still expired. Legislation to extend them is stuck between the House and Senate without a pay-for, yet (see above).

Meanwhile, the estate tax fix that was supposed to be done last year — before the tax took its one-year sabbatical — remains stalled in the Senate. Efforts to negotiate some sort of permanent fix are actively taking place in the Senate, so there’s hope. As with the extender package, however, the hold-up is primarily over offsets.

There’s also the most recent in the growing line of “jobs” bills being considered by Congress this year. The latest one passed the House under the banner of a “small business jobs” bill, despite the fact that most of its benefits went to Build America Bonds. We expect the Senate to take up a bill that’s more small-business oriented soon.

Finally, there’s the burning issue of all those tax cuts expiring at the end of the year.

With that as background, reasonable folks might ask themselves: “What’s the plan?” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) addressed this question earlier this month, stating he hopes to complete work with the Senate on both tax extenders legislation and the House-passed small business bill by the end of May, telling reporters, “These bills are a critical priority for the leadership of this Congress and the president. These are jobs bills and we need to get these done.”

According to BNA, Levin met with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) to discuss the two bills, but the two “did not discuss efforts to address the estate tax, which expired at the start of 2010, and no detailed plans have been set for how lawmakers will deal with the middle-class tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that are set to expire at the end of the year.”

Your S-CORP team has numerous member companies who are intently interested in Congress moving forward on both the estate tax and the expiring tax provisions. We are five months into 2010 already. It’s time for Congress to act.

Built-In Gains in Play

Team S-CORP spent the last couple weeks on the Hill, educating members and staff on the virtues of reducing the built-in gains (BIG) holding period.

When a company converts to an S corporation, it must hold onto any appreciated assets for 10 years or face a punitive level of tax. This tax effectively locks up these assets, preventing the company from selling them and putting the resources to better use. We’ve raised this issue before, but allowing private companies access to their own capital makes lots of sense in an economy where capital is scarce. It also reflects the reality of today’s shorter lifespan for key business investments.

Last year, Congress agreed and included a shorter, seven-year holding period in the stimulus package. That seven-year period expires at the end of 2010 and needs to be made permanent. A five-year period would work, too. Last summer, Senator Grassley (R-IA) introduced legislation to reduce the BIG tax holding period to five years which we view as tremendously valuable to S corporations struggling to raise capital.

With the Senate actively considering provisions to help small businesses grow and create jobs, a shorter BIG holding period is going to give you more job-creating umph than any other tax provision we know. It would benefit Main Street firms located in every state and every sector of the economy and should be included in the final package.

The Skinny on the Jobs Bill

So we’re still trying to figure out what happened between Thursday morning and Thursday afternoon last week.

On Thursday morning, the Senate Finance Committee released an $84 billion “Jobs” bill draft with all the expected items included — jobs provisions, tax extenders, unemployment and COBRA extensions, etc.

That same afternoon, Senator Reid rejected that approach and offered a “skinny” $15 billion bill instead. He called up the House-passed Jobs bill, offered his skinny package as an amendment, filled the amendment tree, and filed cloture on the new package. The skinny bill includes the Schumer-Hatch payroll tax credit, Section 179 expensing relief, Build America Bonds, and an extension of the Highway bill authority until the end of the year.

What happened? A couple of explanations are floating around town. The first version is Senator Reid got an earful over the contents of the Senate Finance bill and its “Christmas Tree” appearance and elected to go with a less costly approach. Version two is that Reid was unhappy with Senator McConnell’s willingness to allow the bipartisan bill to move forward and introduced the skinny package in response. Version three is that this has been the plan all along — to introduce and pass a series of more narrow, jobs oriented bills. Version two got a plug from the White House. As CongressDaily reported:

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president is “eager to sign” the jobs bill as pared down by Reid, and he called its provisions “very akin to what the president had in mind,” adding there will be more bills to refine the jobs strategy.

Either way, the Senate is set to vote on closing out debate on the smaller bill next week when the Senate next reconvenes. As always, cloture requires 60 votes for adoption.

Current favorite topic of speculation: Does Senator Reid have the votes? There is a lot of pent up support for extenders, UI and COBRA extensions, and some of the other provisions dropped in the move to the skinny bill, after all, and the Leader’s move left lots of Senate offices scratching their heads. As The Hill reported this morning:

But since he announced his smaller jobs bill, it has been under siege by Republicans and Democrats alike. Absent political arm-twisting by Senate leaders to bring their rank-and-file in line, opposition to the bill is expected to be bipartisan, sources said.

All of which suggests the Senate will eventually return to the larger, bipartisan package and the votes early next week are merely a diversion. We’ll see.

Finance Hearing on Small Business Taxes and Trade

 

The Senate Finance Committee has announced it will hold hearings on “Trade and Tax Issues Relating to Small Business Job Creation” next Tuesday. The witness list is TBD, but we understand someone from the U.S. Treasury Representative will testify, in addition to a couple of think tank folks and a small business or two. The hearing’s focus on trade is consistent with the Obama Administration’s new focus on increasing exports. As the President outlined in his State of the Union address:

Third, we need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America. To help meet this goal, we’re launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security.

If Congress and the Obama Administration are looking for ways to promote small business exports, the first thing they should do is embrace the current tax treatment of IC-DISC dividends. Two years ago, taxwriters in the House and Senate tried to eliminate the IC-DISC under the guise of making technical corrections.

This effort came despite the fact that small business exporting has been an unmitigated “good news” story in the midst of all the recent financial and economic turmoil. Small business exports are up and the IC-DISC helps. Small and closely held businesses who invest in the United States, create jobs here, and export products overseas can use the IC-DISC to help manage their tax burden.

With a major debate over the correct tax treatment of dividends and capital gains on the horizon, we expect the tax treatment of IC-DISC dividends will once again be before Congress. As such, we’re revamping our efforts to ensure the IC-DISC remains in place to help the next crop of small business exporters break into new markets overseas. Let us know if you’d like to help.

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