The Washington Post this week reported on an issue that shouldn’t come as a surprise for S-CORP readers: President Obama’s tax plans could hurt many of America’s small businesses. Small business owners who report their business profits on their personal income returns (like most small business owners do) are suddenly finding themselves classified as the “richest” Americans, and thereby subject to Obama’s tax increases. The Post explains:
Across the nation, many business owners are watching anxiously as the President undertakes expensive initiatives to overhaul health care and expand educational opportunities, while also reining in runaway budget deficits. Already, Obama has proposed an extra $1.3 trillion in taxes for business and high earners over the next decade. They include new limits on the ability of corporations to automatically defer U.S. taxes on income earned overseas, repeal of a form of inventory accounting that tends to reduce business taxes, and a mandate that investment partnerships pay the regular income tax rate instead of the lower capital gains rate.
The Washington Post is catching up to what S-CORP and its friends have been pointing out for a while now — if your goal is to reinvigorate the economy, placing additional burdens upon the very business that can help pull us out of this crisis is the wrong way to go. The example used by the Post — Gail Johnson of Richmond, Virginia — should give S corporation shareholders pause:
Johnson declined to say whether she voted for Obama. But she said she ignored his tax plans until her husband, who handles real estate and construction for the schools, mentioned it one day. “I’ve since talked to my accountant,” she said. “And, oh, my gosh!”
In a typical year, Johnson’s federal tax bill would be about $120,000. But starting in 2011, the higher marginal rates would add about $13,000 a year, Hurst said. Capping the value of itemized deductions at 28 percent would add another $10,000, for a total increase of $23,000.
And Johnson’s tax bill stands to grow dramatically if Obama were to revive a plan to apply Social Security tax to income over $250,000 instead of capping it at the current $106,800. Because Johnson is an employee and an employer, she would have to pay both portions of the tax, Hurst said, tacking another $30,000 onto her bill.
That’s a potential $50,000 tax increase for a small employer whose family earns about $500,000 a year, including the income from her business. It’s hard to see how increasing her federal tax bill (this does not include state and local taxes) from around $120,000 to $170,000 would not harm Gail’s plans to invest in her business and hire additional employees.
Budget Plan Finished
On that note, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the tax increases outlined above is that they simply will not be enough. Federal deficits are going sky-high and higher taxes on the middle-class are all but inevitable. House and Senate negotiators this week put the final touches on the budget outline for next year. For S corporations, three major items stand out: total deficit estimates, the estate tax and the inclusion of reconciliation instructions for health care.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Obama budget, if enacted, would result in deficits of $1.8 trillion, $1.4 trillion, $1 trillion, $658 billion, $672 billion, and $749 billion over the next five years. That’s a cumulative of $4.4 trillion over five years, or $1.7 trillion more than if we simply did nothing over the next five years and maintained current law.
The U.S. government has never run deficits of that magnitude and exactly how the debt will be financed is an open question. To put these five-year numbers in perspective, over eight years of President Bush — who is rightly criticized for not paying more attention to holding down spending — debt held by the public increased by $2.4 trillion. The budget offered up by conferees this week has deficit estimates that are smaller than the Obama budget, but not enough to address the question of who is going to finance all that debt.
Regarding the estate tax, the budget agreement calls for maintaining the 2009 rates and exemption levels of 45% and $3.5 million per spouse. While the Senate’s original budget allowed for higher exemption levels and a lower rate, the House ultimately prevailed and stuck with freezing the 2009 rules.
On the reform front, the resolution will include “reconciliation instructions” for health care reform. As S-CORP readers know, reconciliation is valuable to the majority in the Senate because it allows for controversial items to pass the Senate with a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes.
There are limitations, however, because bills brought to the Senate floor under reconciliation may not increase the deficit outside of the budget window, which means whatever they enact under this budget would have to be sunset after five years.
S corporation shareholders know how these sunsets work — we have been dealing with the uncertainty of the estate tax repeal sunset for a decade now. How effective could broad-based health care reform be if it goes away in just five years?
Moreover, reconciliation bills may not include provisions with no or little impact on revenues and spending. The core provision in most health reform plans is to create a health insurance “exchange” similar to the Connector up in Massachusetts. This may or may not be a good idea, but it doesn’t have a significant impact on either revenues or spending and would likely fall outside of reconciliation. For a full review of these issues, we recommend reading the analysis of S-Corp ally Keith Hennessey.
Bottom line: Attempting to reconcile health care reform could cost the majority more than it’s worth, especially with Senator Specter now aligning himself with the Democratic Caucus.