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.

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