Business Community Opposes Tax Hike

Following yesterday’s comments by President Obama, the S Corporation Association joined together with more than 30 other business associations to make the case for action by Congress to avoid the massive tax hike on private enterprise looming next year. As the letter states:

Main Street businesses are America’s job creators. They are responsible for 60 percent of the net new jobs created in the last decade. But uncertainty about the economy and looming tax hikes have kept this sector from hiring new workers, resulting in a weak economic recovery and slow to nonexistent job growth. Until Main Street begins to hire, we fear the unemployment rate will remain unacceptably high.

Congress returns next week and the first order of business will be the much-delayed package of small business tax provisions. This legislation is the perfect vehicle for extending the tax rates and Congress should jump at the chance. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, failure to take action would mean that taxes next year will rise on families and businesses by $227 billion.

Despite the President’s opposition, momentum for extending all the expiring rates appears to be growing. In recent weeks, senators Ben Nelson (D-NE), Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) have all expressed support for extending all of the rates. Meanwhile, former OMB Director Peter Orzag wrote in the New York Times earlier that, given a choice between doing nothing and extending everything next year, Congress should extend everything.

Each of these Senate defections is significant since any effort to extend current tax policy will need 60 votes, and the Democrats only control 59 prior to the elections. As The Hill noted today:

Senate Democrats would need all 59 Democrats and at least one Republican to pass the Obama administration’s plan to extend tax cuts for the middle class while allowing the tax breaks for the highest-income tax brackets to expire. That plan could be a non-starter in the Senate without Nelson’s support, since another GOP vote would be needed for passage.

Moreover, the Democrat’s majority may shrink immediately after the November elections. Three states — Delaware, Illinois, and West Virginia — will immediately seat their new Senators after the elections in November rather than wait until January, which means if any of those seats change parties, support for a full extension would grow.

As before, we continue to believe the most likely outcome is continued stalemate on extending the rates and no action by Congress this year, followed closely by Congress choosing to extend all of the rates for at least a year. Each additional defection, combined with any Republican victories in Delaware, West Virginia, and Illinois, increases the odds that the latter option becomes law.

S-CORP on Fox Business News

S Corporation Association Executive Director Brian Reardon appeared on Fox Business News last week to discuss the Obama Administration’s newest stimulus proposals.

As discussed above, if the Obama Administration wants to see some real stimulus, it should seek to remove the policy uncertainty hanging over the private sector and support extending all of the current tax provisions that either expired last year or are scheduled to expire next year.

While some of the specific tax items offered up — particularly expensing and a permanent R&E tax credit — are attractive to members on both sides of the aisle, finishing the existing “honey-do” list of tax items is more important.

The amount of capital available to the private sector — and currently buried in money market funds and ridiculously low-interest Treasuries — completely dwarfs the $180 billion package proposed by the President, even without the offsetting tax hikes that are planned to accompany the package. Getting that capital off the sidelines is the first step towards helping the job market recover.

Payroll Tax Update

Congressional taxwriters, especially in the House, continue to express interest in raising payroll taxes on active S corporation shareholders as an offset to the tax extender package under consideration, and the business community has responded.

Nineteen groups penned letters to Chairmen Levin of Ways and Means and Baucus of Senate Finance, highlighting their concerns with the proposal. As BNA reported:

Small business groups urged in an April 28 letter that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.) abandon a proposal that would raise payroll taxes paid by S corporation shareholders. The proposal is being considered as a possible way to raise additional revenues to pay for the annual tax extenders legislation (H.R. 4213) that includes $31 billion in extensions of popular tax cuts that expired at the end of 2009.

Setting aside the politics of raising taxes on small employers during an economic downturn, another significant challenge confronting tax-writers is the lack of an actual proposal. This idea has been around for years, yet the number of bills introduced with some form of this provision included is few — maybe only the Rangel Mother bill introduced in the fall of 2007. The association letters focused on that provision because it’s the only one out there.

A member of the American Institute of Architects had a chance to speak to this issue yesterday when he testified before the House Small Business Committee:

Although the details of the proposal currently under consideration are unclear, it is my understanding that the proposal would expand the application of payroll taxes to active shareholders of S corporations primarily engaged in the performance of services. I understand that there is concern that some S corporations misclassify salary compensation as earnings distributions in order to avoid paying payroll taxes. However, my fear is that the proposal will entrap millions of small business owners who are legitimately and correctly classifying salary and earnings distributions, with limited public policy benefit.

Yesterday’s hearing was unique in that, to the best of our knowledge, it was the first public testimony on this topic in years. The head of the Joint Committee on Taxation outlined a proposal to apply self-employment taxes to all partnership, LLC, and S corporation income before the Senate Finance Committee, but that was five years ago! We are unaware of any other legislative activity on this topic before last month, when the concept was floated to Ways and Means Members as a possible pay-for for extenders.

Overturning fifty years of tax policy should be a big deal and approached in an orderly fashion, not done at the last minute and on the run.

Payroll Taxes and the 3.8 Percent Investment Tax

With the S corporation payroll tax issue front and center, we’ve been revisiting the adoption of the 3.8 percent investment income tax as part of healthcare reform. There are a number parallels that deserve to be pointed out.

First, both taxes were introduced into the process at the eleventh hour. The 3.8 percent tax was introduced into the debate after both the House and Senate had passed their respective health reform bills and barely a few weeks before the whole package was signed into law. In terms of size and speed, the 3.8 percent investment tax is the LeBron James of the tax world. It’s likely nothing that size ($210 billion over ten years) has moved from introduction to law that quickly in the history of democracy.

Meanwhile, the S corporation tax is under consideration for the extender package. That package has already passed both the House and the Senate and the S corporation provision was not part of either bill. As with the 3.8 percent tax, it hasn’t actually been introduced in any legislation — it’s just a concept. And, like the 3.8 percent tax, this concept has never been subject to hearings or review.

Second, while both taxes are described generically as payroll taxes, they aren’t. The 3.8 percent tax is a tax on savings and investment only. It does not apply to wages or other forms of labor income. The same is true for the S corporation tax. For law-abiding shareholders, it’s a tax on returns from business investment.

Third, one of our arguments against the S corporation payroll tax is that it would, for the first time, fund Medicare with taxes on capital rather than labor. Some have suggested that the 3.8 percent tax broke that barrier already — not true.

There is no connection between the 3.8 percent investment tax and Medicare. The House struck the Medicare connection in the manager’s amendment filed the day before the package was adopted. So, while the tax still has “Medicare” in its title, none of the revenues raised by the tax go to the HI or related Medicare trust funds. Calling the 3.8 percent tax a Medicare tax, or even a payroll tax, is simply incorrect.

Finally, the 3.8 percent tax applies to just about all forms of investment income — rents, royalties, annuities, partnership income, etc. — except for business income earned by active shareholders of S corporations. Active shareholders of S corporations were explicitly exempted. Yet, the new S corporation payroll tax currently under consideration for the extenders package would effectively reverse this policy decision by applying a 3.8 percent tax to the business income of active shareholders!

Americans Love Small Business

The American economy’s reliance on small, closely-held businesses is unique in the developed world. Most other major economies focus their economic energies on large public corporations, but not the United States. Notwithstanding the financial crisis, the Jeffersonian concept of the yeoman farmer is alive and well and lives on Main Street.

As we’ve pointed out before, this emphasis on small and independent didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of conscious efforts by past Congresses — both Republican and Democratic — to empower Main Street business.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center suggests this reliance on private enterprise is in synch with the American people. As reported in USA Today:

According to the just-released study by the highly respected Pew Research Center, small business is the most trusted institution in America. More than churches. More than colleges. More than technology companies. And certainly more than labor unions or large corporations.

The results were “striking,” according to Carroll Dougherty, Pew’s Associate Director. “At a time when a lot of institutions are viewed negatively, small business is viewed very positively. What’s really interesting is that large corporations are viewed almost as negatively as Wall Street. The contrast between large corporations and small business is enormous.”

“So much of this survey is partisan,” Dougherty continued. “In this case, it’s bipartisan. It crosses party lines.” 72% of Republicans, 70% of Democrats and 73% of independents say small businesses have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.

Now if we could only translate those positive vibes into positive legislation.

Private Enterprise and Jobs

A recent Washington Times article by Mike Whalen, chief executive of Heart of America Restaurants and Inns, should give policymakers pause as they worry about weak job growth while simultaneously piling one tax on top of another onto job-creating companies. Using 2008 numbers, Whalen runs through all the taxes a single 100-room limited service hotel located in Iowa pays:

For starters, we pay property taxes to the tune of about $199,000 annually. Next, there is a 7 percent “pillow tax” that generates about $162,000 annually. Then we pay a 6 percent sales tax on revenue that yields about $124,000 annually. Then we also pay sales tax on things like toilet paper, shampoo, soap, continental breakfast food and amenities and other items that the state of Iowa says are not really part of the product we sell because it says we are selling space. It may come as a surprise to you that toilet paper is not part of what you are buying when you rent a hotel room in Iowa, but the state considers it a gift. Those extra sales taxes come to about $1,800 per year.

Now on to Round 2. This little hotel also pays about $3,000 a year in various licenses and fees. Payroll taxes come to about $60,000. The federal government says the depreciable life of a hotel is 39.5 years, but we refurbish the hotel on a constant basis and pay sales tax on related purchases, such as new carpet, mattresses and bedding, and even paint. Anyone who doesn’t believe we already have a partial value-added tax (VAT) like Europe, isn’t in business. Now, between Round 1 and Round 2, we’re at $548,000 in taxes annually.

So, even if we don’t make a dime of profit, and before we pay the mortgage to the bank or buy new stuff, we pay $548,000 in various taxes, licenses and fees.

As Whalen points out, this tax burden doesn’t include state or federal income taxes. Those taxes are going up. And the alternatives aren’t pretty either:

If I sell the hotel, I’ll pay a hefty capital gains tax of 25 percent, and it’s probably going up. Alternatively, when my wife and I die, I’ll pay another 45 percent if the estate tax returns in 2010. But don’t worry: We have diverted money from productive investments to pay for life insurance to partially pay this bill.

A central question to any economy is, “Where are tomorrow’s jobs going to come from?” A small hotel in the Midwest may not immediately come to mind as part of the answer, but ask folks in Iowa whether those jobs are important. And then ask yourself whether the tax changes just enacted, coupled with those on the horizon, are going to make it easier or harder for Mike and other entrepreneurs to take risks, invest in properties like a limited service hotel, and create jobs. The answer is pretty obvious.

Whither Tax Rates?

Following the release of the S Corporation Association letter on the new 3.8 percent tax and its impact on future tax rates, we got into a back and forth with a reporter over what is the appropriate baseline for measuring future rates.

We used a current law baseline, which is the same baseline the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation use when making their estimates. Under current law, for example, the tax rate on dividends is scheduled to rise from 15 percent today to 39.6 percent next year to nearly 45 percent in 2013 when the new 3.8 percent tax kicks in. That’s three times the current tax!

The reporter, on the other hand, suggested it would be more appropriate to use President Obama’s proposals as the correct baseline. Under the President’s plan, the top rate on dividends would rise to 25 percent in 2013 based on his proposal to tax capital gains and dividends at a 20 percent base rate. Here’s a comparison of the two baselines and their respective rates:

Top Marginal Tax Rates in Future Years
2010 2011 2013
Current Law*
Capital Gains 15% 21% 25%
Dividends 15% 41% 45%
Interest Income 35% 41% 45%
Obama Budget
Capital Gains 15% 21% 25%
Dividends 15% 21% 25%
Interest Income 35% 41% 45%
* Current Law and Obama Budget include the phase-out of itemized deductions (Pease)

Unless you’re actually working for the White House or OMB, using the President’s budget proposals as the baseline requires a certain amount of faith — faith he will press for those proposals, faith the Congress will pay attention, faith other priorities will not get in the way. The President’s budget does call for a statutory rate of 20 percent for 2010 and beyond, but most observers are betting rates of 28 percent or higher are more likely.

But that’s all beside the point. As the chart demonstrates, tax rates on investment are going up sharply regardless of which baseline you use.

More on the Investment Tax and S Corporations

Our Google Alert did its job and alerted us to another website devoted to S corporations — www.scorporationsexplained.com. It appears they too are concerned about the new 3.8 percent tax on investment income and S corporations. As web author Stephen Nelson explains, even S corporation shareholders active in the business may end up paying this tax on some of their S corporation income:

Once a taxpayer’s income exceeds the threshold amount, investment income gets hit with the tax. But it’s important to note that investment income earned inside an S corporation retains its character as the income flows through to investors. This means that even working shareholders may pay the new Medicare tax on the chunk of the S corporation’s profit that occurs because of interest, dividends, capital gains, or rental income earned by the S corporation.

Example: Your share of an S corporation’s profit is $100,000 but only $80,000 of this $100,000 represents profits from the business operation. The remaining $20,000 of profit comes from dividends, interest and capital gains earned on investments held by the S corporation. In this case, no matter whether you’re a working shareholder or a passive shareholder, you’ll pay the Obamacare Medicare tax on the $20,000 of investment income that flows through to you if your income exceeds the threshold amounts.

This result suggests the new tax may be more expansive than it appeared at first glance, especially for mature S corporations that control more than one entity.

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