President Obama released a list of proposed changes to the Senate-passed health care reform bill on Monday, and while there is plenty to interest any American, one item in particular should catch the attention of S corporation owners:

The President’s proposal adopts the Senate bill approach and adds a 2.9 percent assessment (equal to the combined employer and employee share of the existing HI tax) on income from interest, dividends, annuities, royalties and rents, other than such income which is derived in the ordinary course of a trade or business which is not a passive activity (e.g., income from active participation in S corporations) on taxpayers with respect to income above $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly. The additional revenues from the tax on earned income would be credited to the HI trust fund and the revenues from the tax on unearned income would be credited to the Supplemental Medical Insurance (SMI) trust fund.

By all appearances, the Administration has decided to apply a new 2.9 percent tax to all forms of “unearned” income, including S corporation income earned by shareholders not active in the business. [That is our take at this time — we are reaching out to taxwriters to make certain that is what the Administration intends]. This tax would be imposed on top of other applicable taxes and would be used to offset the cost of health care reform. CongressDaily reported on this provision yesterday:

President Obama’s $950 billion healthcare reform plan released Monday exempts income derived from running a small, closely held business from a proposed new payroll tax on investments. The carve-out is a concession to a range of business groups and advocates for the self-employed. But critics charge it could open the floodgates to a raft of companies re-structuring their businesses as subchapter S corporations in order to avoid the tax.

That is the glass half full version. The half empty view is the Administration just proposed to raise marginal tax rates on S corporation shareholders with day jobs. Here’s how we see it applying:

  • Taxpayer A works at his S corporation, earns a salary above $200,000 and receives a distribution of S corporation earnings. He would now pay an extra .9 percent on his salary, but not pay more on any earnings from the S corporation.
  • Taxpayer B makes more than $200,000 at another job and is a shareholder of an S corporation. She would now pay an extra .9 percent on her salary as well as an extra 2.9 percent on any earnings from the S corporation.

This proposal raises all sorts of alarm bells. First, as we have pointed out, it takes the notion of the ”payroll” tax and throws it in the trashcan. Second, it continues the illusion of the Medicare and SMI Trust Funds; revenue raised by this tax pays for health care reform, not Medicare benefits. Third, it raises the cost of capital (especially if it is combined with next year’s scheduled increase in the capital gains and dividend rates) at a time when our financial institutions are capital-starved. The whole point of TARP was to recapitalize our financial system, remember?

Beyond those broad policy concerns, the mechanics of this tax are particularly challenging. Does Taxpayer B pay a total Medicare tax of 3.8 percent on her salary above $200,000, but only 2.9 percent on any passive income, including S corporation earnings? And what about Taxpayer A? He already faces the challenge of making certain he pays himself a “reasonable” wage or he risks being accused of tax avoidance. This proposal would increase that temptation and the broader policy challenge.

Finally, how does the Administration plan to distinguish between passive and active shareholders? Here is how IRS Publication 925 (Passive Activity and At-Risk Rules) defines “Active Participation”:

Active participation depends on all the facts and circumstances. Factors that indicate active participation include making decisions involving the operation or management of the activity, performing services for the activity, and hiring and discharging employees. Factors that indicate a lack of active participation include lack of control in managing and operating the activity, having authority only to discharge the manager of the activity, and having a manager of the activity who is an independent contractor rather than an employee.

It’s pretty sketchy. So now will all those non-active S Corp shareholders try to become active so they can avoid the new “payroll” tax? Sounds like another enforcement headache for the IRS. Expect to hear lots more on this issue in coming weeks.

More Intel on Estate Taxes

Two ideas are being floated in the Senate on the estate tax. A while back, Dow Jones reported on a proposal to allow taxpayers to prepay their estate taxes. As Martin Vaughn wrote:

A proposal to allow wealthy people to prepay estate taxes while they are still alive, in exchange for a lower tax rate, has caught the attention of Senate staff trying to craft a bipartisan, permanent compromise on the estate tax. The plan would allow wealthy people to place assets in a prepayment trust while they are still alive. Those assets would be subject to a 35% tax, which the estate owner would have five years to pay, according to a document describing the plan, obtained by Dow Jones Newswires.

The value of this option for taxpayers is obvious: you get a lower rate. For the government, the value is that it would be scored as a revenue raiser. Congress operates on a finite budget window, so the prepayments would be scored as new revenues while some of the estate taxes foregone would fall outside the budget window and wouldn’t count. Not exactly kosher, but the point is this idea could, just like the old Roth IRA concept, fit the needs of Congress and help them move towards a resolution of the estate tax dilemma.

The other idea to break the current impasse is to impose a “toll charge” on family foundations as a means of offsetting the cost of lowering the estate tax below 2009 levels. The Hill reported earlier this week:

The Gates Family Foundation - arguably the biggest charity in the world with assets over $35 billion according to 2008 records - is in the crosshairs of Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who see it as a money pot to help pay for a legislative fix for the estate tax. Well-placed sources say the senators might create a “toll charge” on charitable foundations that would sock Democratic heavyweights like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

During last year’s budget debate, Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) offered an amendment to reduce the top estate tax rate from 45 to 35 percent while increasing the exclusion from $3.5 million to $5 million. That amendment garnered majority support but less than the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate. Moreover, it left unresolved how the sponsors would make up the revenue difference between their amendment and 2009 estate tax rules. That’s where the toll charge on foundations might come in.

In terms of timing, the clock is ticking. We are now two months into the year of repeal and more estates are finding themselves in estate tax limbo. Senator Kyl addressed this concern yesterday, suggesting he would begin blocking other Senate business in order to force an agreement to take up an estate tax fix. As the Hill quoted Reid yesterday:

Very soon we’re going to have a process on how estate tax reform is going to move forward. I will insist on an agreement on how to proceed, if we’re going to have unanimous consent on how to proceed with any of these subsequent bills.

At the end of this process, it is possible no permanent fix can get 60 votes, the estate tax stays repealed for the rest of the year with the old 55 percent and $1 million exclusion coming back in 2011. All this recent activity suggests some sort of effort is just around the corner, however, and we may know the outcome soon.