Health care costs continue to be in the news and on everyone’s mind. As a result, tax-friendly ways to pay for these expenses are very much in play for many people. The three primary players, so to speak, are Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSAs) and Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs).
All provide opportunities for tax-advantaged funding of health care expenses. But what’s the difference between these three types of accounts? Here’s an overview of each one:
HSAs. If you’re covered by a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP), you can contribute pretax income to an employer-sponsored HSA — or make deductible contributions to an HSA you set up yourself — up to $3,400 for self-only coverage and $6,750 for family coverage for 2017. Plus, if you’re age 55 or older, you may contribute an additional $1,000.
You own the account, which can bear interest or be invested, growing tax-deferred similar to an IRA. Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and you can carry over a balance from year to year.
FSAs. Regardless of whether you have an HDHP, you can redirect pretax income to an employer-sponsored FSA up to an employer-determined limit — not to exceed $2,600 in 2017. The plan pays or reimburses you for qualified medical expenses.
What you don’t use by the plan year’s end, you generally lose — though your plan might allow you to roll over up to $500 to the next year. Or it might give you a 2½-month grace period to incur expenses to use up the previous year’s contribution. If you have an HSA, your FSA is limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.
HRAs. An HRA is an employer-sponsored arrangement that reimburses you for medical expenses. Unlike an HSA, no HDHP is required. Unlike an FSA, any unused portion typically can be carried forward to the next year. And there’s no government-set limit on HRA contributions. But only your employer can contribute to an HRA; employees aren’t allowed to contribute.
Please bear in mind that these plans could be affected by health care or tax legislation. Contact our firm for the latest information, as well as to discuss these and other ways to save taxes in relation to your health care expenses.
Disaster planning is usually associated with businesses. But individuals need to prepare for worst-case scenarios, as well. Unfortunately, the topic can seem a little overwhelming. To help simplify matters, here are five keys to disaster planning that everyone should consider:
1. Insurance. Start with your homeowners’ coverage. Make sure your policy covers flood, wind and other damage possible in your region and that its dollar amount is adequate to cover replacement costs. Also review your life and disability insurance.
2. Asset documentation. Create a list of your bank accounts, titles, deeds, mortgages, home equity loans, investments and tax records. Inventory physical assets not only in writing (including brand names and model and serial numbers), but also by photographing or videoing them.
3. Document storage. Keep copies of financial and personal documents somewhere other than your home, such as a safe deposit box or the distant home of a trusted friend or relative. Also consider “cloud computing” — storing digital files with a secure Web-based provider.
4. Cash. You may not receive insurance money right away. A good rule of thumb is to set aside three to six months’ worth of living expenses in a savings or money market account. Also maintain a cash reserve in your home in a durable, fireproof safe.
5. An emergency plan. Establish a family emergency plan that includes evacuation routes, methods of getting in touch and a safe place to meet. Because a disaster might require you to stay in your home, stock a supply kit with water, nonperishable food, batteries and a first aid kit.
By Laura Litvan, Sahil Kapur, and Erik Wasson
Senate Republicans making one last-ditch effort to repeal Obamacare have the daunting task of assembling 50 votes for an emotionally charged bill with limited details on how it would work, what it would cost and how it would affect health coverage — all in 12 days.
They need to act by Sept. 30 to use a fast-track procedure that prevents Democrats from blocking it, but the deadline doesn’t leave enough time to get a full analysis of the bill’s effects from the Congressional Budget Office. The measure would face parliamentary challenges that could force leaders to strip out provisions favored by conservatives. Several Republicans are still withholding their support or rejecting it outright.
And even if Republicans manage to get it through the Senate by Sept. 30, the House would have to accept it without changing a single comma.
Most Senate Republicans are still trying to figure out what it’s in the bill, which was authored by Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Until the past few days, most assumed that GOP leaders had no interest in reviving the Obamacare repeal effort after their high-profile failure to pass a measure this summer.
Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana said he’s still trying to figure out how the bill will affect his state and wants to hear what GOP leaders say at a closed-door lunch Tuesday.
“It will be a very active discussion,” he said.
The new repeal bill would replace the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies with block grants to states, which would decide how to help people get health coverage. The measure would end Obamacare’s requirements that individuals obtain health insurance and that most employers provide it to their workers, and it would give states flexibility to address the needs of people with pre-existing medical conditions.
But lawmakers won’t have much more information about the legislation by the time the Senate would have to vote. The CBO said Monday it will offer a partial assessment of the measure early next week, but that it won’t have estimates of its effects on the deficit, health-insurance coverage or premiums for at least several weeks. That could make it hard to win over several Republicans who opposed previous versions of repeal legislation.
So far, President Donald Trump has suggested he’d support the bill, but he hasn’t thrown his full weight behind it.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has told senators he would bring up the bill if it had 50 votes, and under fast-track rules he could do so at any time before Sept. 30. That’s the end of the government’s fiscal year, when the rules expire and the GOP would have to start over.
Republicans can only lose two votes in the 52-48 Senate and still pass the measure, with Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaker. There are at least four holdouts, and getting any of them to back the measure would require the senators to change their past positions. Pence, who would cast the potentially deciding vote, will return to Washington from New York Tuesday, where he’s been taking part in United Nations General Assembly events, to attend Senate GOP lunches.
Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky said Monday he’s opposed to the Graham-Cassidy bill, saying it doesn’t go far enough. John McCain of Arizona said he’s “not supportive” yet, citing the rushed legislative process.
Two other Republicans -- Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- have voted against every repeal bill considered this year in the Senate, citing cuts to Medicaid and Planned Parenthood as well as provisions that would erode protections for those with pre-existing conditions. The Graham-Cassidy bill contains similar provisions on those three areas.
"I’m concerned about what the effect would be on coverage, on Medicaid spending in my state, on the fundamental changes in Medicaid that would be made," Collins told reporters Monday evening.
She said that Maine’s hospital association has calculated the state would lose $1 billion in federal health spending over a decade compared to current law.
"That’s obviously of great concern to me," she added.
Murkowski is getting a hard sell from Republican backers of the bill.
“What I’m trying to figure out is the impact to my state,” Murkowski told reporters Monday. “There are some formulas at play with different pots of money with different allocations and different percentages, so it is not clear.”
McCain, who is close friends with Graham, cast the deciding vote to sink an earlier repeal bill in late July when he made a dramatic return to the Senate after a brain cancer diagnosis. At the time, he made an eloquent plea for colleagues to work with Democrats and use regular legislative procedures instead of trying to jam it through on a partisan basis.
John Weaver, a former top adviser to McCain, said supporting Graham-Cassidy would require the Arizona senator to renege on his word.
"I cannot imagine Senator McCain turning his back not only on his word, but also on millions of Americans who would lose health care coverage, despite intense lobbying by his best friend," Weaver said in an email. "Graham-Cassidy, if truly attempted to pass, will bypass every standard of transparency and inclusion important to people who care about fair process."
Despite the obstacles, the bill’s backers are putting on a good face about the prospects.
"We’re making progress on it,” said Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “I’m still cautiously optimistic, but there are a lot of moving parts.” Johnson is planning a Sept. 26 hearing on the measure in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he leads. The Senate Finance Committee is planning its own hearing Sept. 25 on the measure.
"There’s a lot of interest," Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said Monday. "Those guys have done some very good work."
A number of Republicans are still pushing for changes to the bill, so the final version may evolve. It’s also subject to parliamentary challenges under the reconciliation process being used to circumvent the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. That could allow Democrats to strike provisions that take aim at Obamacare’s regulatory structure.
If it passed the Senate, the House would have to pass the bill without any changes. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Monday that the measure is Republicans’ last best chance to repeal Obamacare.
“We want them to pass this, we’re encouraging them to pass this,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference in Wisconsin. “It’s our best, last chance of getting repeal and replace done.”
But that won’t be easy either. The measure strives to equalize Medicaid funding between states, which means that some House Republicans from Medicaid expansion states could find it hard to support. That includes states like New York and California, which stand to lose federal funds under Graham-Cassidy. Those states have only Democratic senators, but have some GOP House members.
In some ways, it’s remarkable that Republicans are mounting another run at repeal.
Two months ago, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s effort to pass a replacement with only Republican support suffered a spectacular defeat in the Senate. When members of the Senate health committee then began working on a bipartisan plan to shore up Obamacare, Graham and Cassidy revved up a new bid to get their GOP-only bill to the Senate floor.
Graham and Cassidy are hoping to channel the GOP’s embarrassment at failing to repeal Obamacare this summer after seven years of promising to do so. But Paul said Monday this legislation shouldn’t be treated like a “kidney stone” you pass “just to get rid of it.”
Despite all the obstacles, Democrats quickly geared up for another campaign against repeal, warning that the latest bill is a serious threat.
"This bill is worse than the last bill," Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters Monday. "It will slash Medicaid, get rid of pre-existing conditions. It’s very, very bad."
- With assistance by Anna Edgerton
By Michael Cohn
States and localities made nearly 400 sales tax rate changes in the first half of this year, a big jump of over 30 percent from the same period last year.
Sales tax technology developer Vertex found 398 sales tax rate changes in the first six months of 2017, a 30.49 percent increase from the 305 changes in the first six months of 2016.
Two of the biggest changes happened in California and New Jersey. Effective Jan.1, 2017, California dropped its sales tax rate from 7.50 to 7.25 percent. The total tax rate in many cities and counties stayed higher than the statewide rate because of local voter-approved district taxes in those areas of California. Also taking effect on Jan. 1, 2017, New Jersey dropped its sales tax rate from 7.00 to 6.875 percent.
Sales tax rates are always changing while new taxes are always being added, Vertex noted. Over the past 10 years, there were 2,361 new sales and use taxes, an average of 224 per year; plus 4,209 sales and use tax changes, an average of 400 a year; adding up to a total of 6,570 new and changed sales and use tax rates, or 625 per year on average.
Puerto Rico now has the highest “state” sales tax rate in the country: 10.50 percent. The commonwealth enacted a value-added tax in 2015, and it was set to take effect last year. But the VAT was delayed and eventually the legislation was repealed. Instead, Puerto Rico will continue with its existing sales and use tax.
In second place are four states—Indiana, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Tennessee—which all have the second highest state sales tax rate at 7.00 percent.
Kodiak, Nome and Wrangell, all of which are in Alaska, and Winter Park, Colo., have the highest city sales tax rate, also pegged at 7.00 percent. Hoonah, Alaska and Selawik, Alaska have the second highest rate of 6.50. Tuba City, Ariz., including the surrounding areas in the
To’Nanees’Dizi local government, has the highest combined sales tax rate of 12.90 percent. The unincorporated town is on Navajo lands in Cococino County, Ariz.
On the whole, sales taxes have been trending upward a bit this year on average nationally, though there was mostly consistency since last year with the jurisdictions that had the highest rates.
“The combined national sales tax rates average increased slightly to 9.9778 percent, up from 9.9447 percent in 2016,” said Vertex chief tax officer Peggi Rockefeller in a statement. “Although there was a significant increase in sales tax rate changes from the same time last year, the states and cities with the highest sales tax rates remained the same as in 2016.”
The IRS is warning about possible fake charity scams emerging due to Hurricane Harvey.
Criminals may look to take advantage of the outpouring of support for victims of the hurricane by impersonating charities to get money or private information from taxpayers, the agency said.
Such fraudulent schemes may involve contact by telephone, social media, email or in-person solicitations. Criminals often send emails that steer recipients to bogus Web sites that appear to be affiliated with legitimate charitable causes. These sites frequently mimic the sites of, or use names similar to, legitimate charities, or claim to be affiliated with legitimate charities in order to persuade people to send money or provide personal financial information that can be used to steal identities or financial resources.
The IRS suggests never giving out personal financial information such as Social Security numbers or credit card and bank account numbers and passwords to anyone who solicits a contribution. Scam artists may use this information to steal a donor’s ID and money. Also, the service warns donors never give or send cash: For security and tax record purposes, contribute by check or credit card or another way that provides documentation of the donation.
The free IRS Publication 526, “Charitable Contributions,” describes the tax rules that apply to making legitimate tax-deductible donations and provides complete details on what records to keep.
By Jef Feeley
The South Dakota Supreme Court brought the question of whether online retailers should pay sales tax back into sharp focus.
The Mount Rushmore state’s highest court ruled Thursday that companies selling wares over the Internet can’t be forced to collect South Dakota’s 4.5 percent tax on purchases, laying the groundwork for a U.S. Supreme Court appeal that could change law across the country. A decision forcing online retailers to collect such taxes could be worth billions in revenue to state and local governments.
The court backed an appeal by online retailers Overstock.com Inc., Wayfair Inc. and NewEgg Inc. challenging a state law that required companies that do more than $100,000 worth of business in online sales in the state to collect sales taxes.
The law ran afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Quill Corp v. North Dakota, which forbade states from requiring retailers without a physical presence to collect sales tax. Justice Anthony Kennedy has suggested in later rulings that the court reconsider the decision.
Kennedy’s views, combined with the South Dakota court’s “quick but complete dispatch of the case, significantly enhance the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to consider the case during the next term,’’ said Deborah White, a lawyer for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
Managers of New Egg, based in City of Industry, California, didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment. Caroline Burns, a spokeswoman for Boston-based Wayfair, declined to comment.
Jonathan Johnson, an executive for Salt Lake City, Utah-based Overstock, called the South Dakota ruling “another failed effort to get companies to become their tax collectors.” Johnson said backers of Internet sales taxes put too much emphasis on a single line of one of Kennedy’s opinions and are off base with assurances that the high court will take the South Dakota case.
“Even if the Supreme Court takes it, they are likely to rule the same way they did in 1992,” he said.
The sales-tax issue has become a hot potato for online retail giant Amazon.com Inc., which is jousting with the state of South Carolina over disputed payments. In June, the Palmetto State filed a complaint alleging Amazon failed to collect taxes on sales made by third-party merchants on the retailer’s online marketplace.
South Carolina claims Amazon owes $12.5 million in taxes, penalties and interest for the first three months of 2016. That figure “will continue to accrue until this matter is resolved,’’ state officials have said. Amazon officials didn’t return an email Thursday seeking comment on the South Carolina case or the South Dakota ruling.
Amazon began collecting sales taxes on purchases in all states that levy them earlier this year. But the online retailer avoids charging shoppers sales taxes when they buy from one of its third-party vendors—sales that make up about half the company’s volume.
Critics say untaxed third-party sales have an advantage over brick-and-mortar retail chains, which have their own robust online operations but have to collect sales tax on all purchases in states where they have physical presences. Many large chains have stores in almost every state.
President Donald Trump has backed the idea that online retailers, such as Amazon, should pay the same sales taxes that retailers with physical stores pay and has been critical of the online retailer’s policies.
The South Dakota statute that required online retailers to cough up sales tax was specifically drafted so the state’s highest court could quickly reject it and send it up for U.S. Supreme Court review, said Robert Desiderio, a University of New Mexico Law School tax professor.
Technology has outstripped tax policy and the Supreme Court should address whether all retailers should pay their fair share of taxes, Desiderio said. “Should it really make a difference if the sale is over the Internet or at a store?’’ he asked.
States also have a legitimate claim to the loss of tax revenue tied to Internet sales, the professor said. Some analysts estimate states and local government lose about $5 billion a year in taxes from Amazon marketplace commerce.
The South Dakota opinion, authored by Chief Justice David Gilbertson, acknowledged the state’s interests in collecting Internet sales taxes, but said it was bound by the 1992 Supreme Court ruling.
“However persuasive the state’s arguments are on revisiting the issue,” the two-decade old ruling is controlling law and South Dakota’s judges were forced to bow to the highest court’s “prerogative in overturning its own decisions,” Gilbertson said.
The South Dakota case is State of South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., 28160-a-GAS, Supreme Court of South Dakota (Pierre).
—With assistance from Spencer Soper
By Michael Cohn
The Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation unit has reportedly been tapped by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office to help investigate financial ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
According to a report Thursday in the Daily Beast, Mueller’s office has turned to the Criminal Investigation unit because of the extensive financial expertise of its agents. Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has experience working with IRS agents employed by the unit during joint investigations by the FBI and the IRS of crimes such as tax evasion and money laundering. By teaming with the IRS, Mueller might presumably get access to Trump's tax returns, which the president has so far refused to release.
The IRS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mueller’s office is also reportedly now working with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on the investigation of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s financial transactions with Russia, according to Politico.
By Anna Edgerton
President Donald Trump will sign a tax bill this year, but the legislation may not be as ambitious as GOP leaders had originally hoped, according to Representative Mark Walker, chairman of a large conservative caucus.
The plan will be more than just rate cuts, according to Walker, which means it could still include some structural changes, such as those that would deter offshore profit shifting by corporations.
“I think it will be reform—it may not be exactly what we wanted starting out this year,” North Carolina’s Walker said during a C-Span Newsmakers interview that will air on Sunday. “I think that will be subjective as to who is interpreting what level of overhauling may happen, but I am confident and I’ve said, even weeks ago, that I expect that to happen before Thanksgiving.”
While the Trump administration is facing backlash from conservative Republicans over a hurricane relief bill that includes a short-term extension of the federal debt limit, Walker’s comments show that he is still relatively optimistic about the timing of a tax bill. The debate over whether tax legislation will consist of tax cuts that expire, a lasting revamp of the tax code, or a combination of the two, has dominated Washington.
Republicans, who control only 52 seats in the Senate, plan to use congressional budget rules that allow for approving a tax bill with a simple majority. But those rules also require tax cuts to be offset so they don’t add to the long-term budget deficit. Changes that increase the deficit would have to expire over time.
The GOP is turning its attention to taxes after the House passed the hurricane relief bill that included a stopgap measure to fund the government and temporarily suspend the debt limit. It was approved with support from Democrats, and Walker was one of the 90 GOP members that voted against it.
Trump’s decision to side with Democrats for this short-term solution, along with the Senate’s earlier failure to pass the House’s bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, has left the majority party grasping for a signature accomplishment after nine months of unified government. Many GOP lawmakers have said they’re worried that reaching the end of the year without getting a tax bill signed into law could cost them in next year’s midterm election.
“We do have to have some wins really quickly because over the next two to three months I believe the grade will come for the 115th congress,” Walker said. “If we have nothing to show for it, I believe it will be a very poor grade.”
Walker said he applauds the work of Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, for keeping his “diligent” focus on tax policy, even with all the political furor this year.
“The framework is there,” Walker said. “Filling in a few gaps, I think it’s certainly reasonable to believe we could get this done by mid-November.”
The so-called Big Six—made up of White House officials and congressional leaders involved in tax negotiations—jointly released a two-page statement in July that outlined a broad set of agreed-upon tax principles. Specifics, including such basic matters as where to set the corporate tax rate and how to set up individual tax brackets, have yet to emerge.
Walker, who chairs the Republican Study Committee of about 150 members, was less complimentary of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—a member of the Big Six. Mnuchin alienated some conservatives during his argument for a debt limit increase by not taking seriously their demands for policies to address the deficit.
“We’re going to need to see a stronger vision from him when it comes to tax reform as opposed to just the two or three talking points,” Walker said. “I’m not saying he’s not the person for the job, but he needs to do a stronger job than what he’s done on the debt ceiling.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is “the best policy person in the House,” Walker said, but he and all Republicans need to be more “demonstrative in our position.”
“We’ve got to hold our positions, not just from a visionary standpoint, but the action steps and execution that create the opportunity to be able to accomplish those goals,” Walker said. “That’s where I see us going this fall.”
By John Voskuhl and Erik Wasson
Before President Donald Trump launched his latest call for major tax cuts, he took a moment to offer support to Texas and Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
“We are here with you today, we are with you tomorrow and we will be with you every single day after, to restore, to recover and to rebuild,” Trump pledged during a speech at a Springfield, Missouri, manufacturing plant Wednesday.
That moment revealed how the storm—which has claimed more than 30 lives, according to the Associated Press, and caused as much as $90 billion in damage—may add new limits to Trump’s goal of delivering historic tax cuts. The president has already called on Congress to quickly deliver a Harvey aid package, but its multibillion dollar cost will stiffen resistance among lawmakers to any tax changes that aren’t offset with new revenue.
“Tax cuts not offset or at least partially offset just took a huge hit from Hurricane Harvey, although Republicans may not know it yet,” said Stan Collender, a former Senate Democratic budget aide.
Republicans in Congress, who were already tentatively planning to combine a debt-ceiling increase with a short-term spending bill to keep the government open, may now feel urgency to add Harvey-relief provisions into that mix—creating a brand-identity problem for some in the party.
“That has everything you want except Republican fiscal responsibility,” said Representative Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican and a spending hawk. “We’ve got to help the victims of Harvey, we’ve got to raise the debt ceiling, but where is the responsibility for not leaving a fiscal mess to our children and grandchildren? That bill could come from Democrats.”
On Wednesday, the House’s chief Democrat eagerly voiced concerns over the deficit in a response to Trump’s tax speech. “If Republicans have their way, they will blow a huge hole in the deficit, gut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act—all just to fund deficit-busting tax breaks for the high-end,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an emailed statement.
GOP leaders had already said that any tax plan would have to pay for its cuts with new revenue. “It will have to be revenue-neutral,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in May. “We have a $21 trillion debt.”
Representative Peter Roskam, a Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s panel on tax policy, stuck to that line on Wednesday during an interview with Bloomberg Television—though he added that it’s an “open question” as to whether Congress will adhere to revenue neutrality in tax legislation.
The question is not just academic. Republicans, who have a slim 52-seat majority in the Senate, plan to pass a tax bill under a budget procedure that would allow them to bypass Democrats’ opposition. But that procedure, known as “reconciliation,” also holds that any tax cuts that add to the nation’s long-term deficit would have to be set to expire.
‘Better than Nothing’
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said repeatedly that temporary tax cuts aren’t the worst outcome. “Permanent is a lot better than temporary, and temporary is a lot better than nothing,” he said earlier this month.
In general, Trump’s administration has tended to downplay potential budgetary effects while promising “the biggest tax cut and the largest tax reform in the history of our country.” On Wednesday, in a speech the White House billed as the first of several aimed at campaigning for a tax overhaul, Trump avoided repeating the superlatives, but stuck to similar themes.
While his remarks included few specifics, Trump repeated his desire to slash the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from 35 percent. He also called for an unspecified middle class tax cut—previously, he has sought a doubling of the standard deduction, which would benefit working-class taxpayers. Together, the two provisions would cost an estimated $3.7 trillion in revenue over 10 years, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
“Congress shouldn’t be debating a deficit-increasing tax cut because our debt is at record levels,” said Maya MacGuineas, the CRFB’s president.
Also, she said, the need to pay for Hurricane Harvey relief “is a reminder of why it is so important to have our fiscal house in order.”
‘The Right Thing’
Trump did include one way to raise revenue in his Wednesday speech—though he characterized it as a way to simplify the tax code: closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy. He didn’t specify the loopholes in question, but he drew chuckles by saying such changes would hurt his own tax planning.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this, but we’re doing the right thing,” said Trump, a billionaire businessman.
As Congress returns from a monthlong recess next week, the bill for Hurricane Harvey’s damage will make it more fiscally irresponsible than ever for lawmakers to consider tax cuts that aren’t paid for, said Bob Bixby of The Concord Coalition, a deficit-watchdog group.
“What needs to happen when Congress returns is a budget deal acknowledging that things need to be paid for and that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves,” Bixby said in an email. “It makes sense to borrow for an emergency like a hurricane but not for a tax cut that will contribute to an already unsustainable fiscal path.”
By Agnel Philip
The Trump administration’s tax overhaul plan bears little resemblance to the reform efforts of the 1980s and wouldn’t do much to boost U.S. economic growth, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said.
“This is an effort to cut taxes, principally to cut taxes on business in ways that will benefit a small part of the population and will do very little, in my judgment, for the economy,” Summers, a Harvard professor, said Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “The great danger here is that we’re going to have some kind of giveaway that is going to impoverish the public sector with respect to huge challenges that it faces down the road.”
His comments came after National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said on Friday in an interview with Fox Business Network that participating in tax reform efforts were a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Summers originally responded in a blog post on his website.
The White House said it will release a final version of President Donald Trump’s tax plan this month as Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin worked through the summer with congressional leaders, known as the Big Six, to come up with the details. The overhaul is expected to cut corporate and individual taxes, get rid of deductions and simplify the code.
Summers, who led the Treasury during the Clinton administration, said meaningful reform would substantially simplify the tax code, increase incentives for purchasing equipment and encourage companies to bring back cash from overseas.
“I don’t see that developing in the proposals that are under discussion,” he said. “There’s a risk that some of the proposals, like the emphasis on territorial taxation without a global minimum, would operate primarily to encourage more businesses to do more things abroad instead of in the United States.”
Summers has been a vocal critic of the president on everything from trade with China to his budget proposal to science.
—With assistance from David Westin
By Saleha Mohsin and Justin Sink
Two top Trump administration officials said it may not be possible for President Donald Trump to deliver on his promise to cut corporate tax rates to 15 percent.
In separate appearances Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Marc Short, Trump’s legislative affairs director, both said Trump is still committed to that rate cut—down from the current 35 percent—but acknowledged the potential for compromise.
“The president has made it clear since the campaign, ideally he’d like to get it down to 15 percent. I don’t know if we’ll be able to achieve that given the budget issues, but we’re going to get this down to a very competitive level,” Mnuchin said Tuesday at CNBC’s Delivering Alpha conference in New York. “What the exact number is is less important. What’s important is making sure we have a competitive system.”
“Ultimately there’s probably compromise to get to the best deal,” Short told reporters at an event sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. He also said that Trump continues to believe that a 15 percent corporate rate would best stimulate the economy, while convincing American businesses to keep their tax addresses in the U.S.
Trump also wants to apply the same rate to certain pass-through businesses, such as S corporations and partnerships, which don’t pay taxes themselves, but pass their earnings through to their owners, who pay taxes at their individual rates, Mnuchin said. However, he said “service companies that are pass-throughs will not get the benefit of the rate.”
“If you earn money that’s clearly income, if you’re an accountant firm and that’s clearly income, you’ll be taxed at income rates—you won’t be taxed at pass-through rates,” Mnuchin said. “If you’re a business that’s creating manufacturing jobs you’re going to get the benefit of that rate because that’s going to be passed through to help create jobs and better wages.”
Mnuchin also repeated that Trump is committed to eliminating the special tax treatment of carried interest—but not for all the investment firms that make use of it. “The president’s been very clear that hedge funds will not have the benefit of carried interest,” he said. But other firms—“entities that do create jobs,” Mnuchin said—may still qualify.
Carried interest is the portion of an investment fund’s returns that are paid to investment managers. It’s currently taxed as capital gains, at rates as low as 20 percent. The top individual income tax rate is 39.6 percent, though Trump and congressional Republicans have proposed cutting it to 35 percent.
Trump is planning an aggressive travel schedule, taking him to as many as 13 states over the next seven weeks, to sell the idea of a tax overhaul as the administration tries to avoid repeating the communications failures of its attempt to repeal Obamacare. However, Republican leaders have yet to unveil details of what Trump has called a “massive” tax regime change, including such basic matters as where to set the corporate tax rate and how to set up individual tax brackets. Mnuchin and Short both said details will come later this month.
The White House and members of Congress are “pretty close to finalizing” a bill and have settled many of the disagreements that divided their effort early in the process, Short said. The White House is wary of relying solely on Republican support for the legislation after seeing the health care bill collapse and is genuinely seeking Democratic support, Short said.
While the president is eager for a bipartisan tax deal—and his tax tour will visit states where Democrats hold Senate seats—Mnuchin said that if needed the administration will encourage Republicans to use the reconciliation process to get to 60 votes. That would allow them to bypass a Senate filibuster and pass a bill on a partisan basis.
Mnuchin also said that he is considering backdating any tax changes to Jan. 1 of this year, which “would be a big boon for the economy.”
While Trump is committed to a permanent tax overhaul, Mnuchin has at times appeared to be managing down those expectations. “As I said this is a pass-fail exercise. Passing tax reform, which hasn’t been done in 31 years, that’s a win,” the Treasury chief said Tuesday, adding that stock markets have a “built-in” expectation of success.
Trump last week cut a short-term debt ceiling and government spending deal with Democrats to clear the deck for a major tax bill, but the agreement could complicate tax efforts by sowing doubt among the GOP about its unpredictable president. As Mnuchin worked to sell an 18-month debt-ceiling increase to Republicans and Democrats during a meeting in the Oval Office last week, Trump abruptly decided to go for a three-month increase in line with what Democrats wanted.
“We could have done a one-year deal—this wasn’t widely reported—on the debt ceiling,”
Mnuchin said Tuesday. “But the president wants to raise military spending. That’s one of his main priorities, particularly in the mix of what’s going on in North Korea and other areas. The president wants to increase military spending and that’s something he is going to demand for December.”
By Lynnley Browning
Congressional tax writers want to offer U.S. companies an “unprecedented” way to slash their tax bills by investing in new equipment. But firms that stand to benefit most are saying no thanks, just give every company a bigger rate cut.
A lobbying group for companies including AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Intel Corp.—all of which were among the biggest spenders on equipment and facilities over the past 12 months—says a major cut to the current 35 percent corporate tax rate is the better way to drive economic growth.
“Making America great starts with the rate—ideally in the low 20s,” said James Pinkerton, co-chair of the RATE Coalition, which has dozens of corporate members. “Every other tax decision is subordinate to what the rate is.”
Some economists disagree, arguing that “full expensing” —letting companies write-off the cost of their capital spending immediately instead of doing it gradually over years—would provide incentives for companies to invest, spurring growth more effectively than a simple rate cut. But the revenue cost of the change, which is estimated at more than $2 trillion over 10 years, makes it a tough sell politically.
“It’s a trade-off between lower rates and expensing” if you want tax cuts that don’t add to the deficit, said David Sites, a partner in international tax services at auditing firm Grant Thornton.
GOP leaders have been laying the groundwork to get tax legislation through the Senate without Democratic support. Under budget rules governing the process they’d use—known as reconciliation—any provisions that would add to the long-term deficit would have to be set to expire.
President Donald Trump, who has set a goal of 3 percent annual growth, is cool to the full expensing idea—and very keen on achieving the lowest possible corporate tax rate. That, coupled with indifference from corporate America, may narrow the proposal’s chances of surviving in the framework for tax legislation that GOP leaders have promised to release later this month.
“On the expensing front, we do not believe expensing should be prioritized at the expense of rates,” Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, said Tuesday at an event sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “We’re more interested in prioritizing lower rates. We think that’s more important to actually getting the economy growing.”
A day later, Representative Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, emerged from a House Republican tax meeting and said: “It sounds like they are not going to do full and immediate expensing.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan and the chief House tax writer, Kevin Brady, have been the proponents of expanded expensing—they originally called for allowing full, immediate write-offs for capital spending last June.
Currently, companies are allowed to deduct half of certain capital expenditures right away under a temporary provision known as bonus depreciation.
The benefit, which was initially considered a way to help stem the effects of recessions, is scheduled to phase out over the next several years. But congressional tax writers could opt to make it a permanent feature of the tax code, said Ray Beeman, co-leader of EY’s Washington Council Ernst & Young practice. Senator John Thune, a member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, introduced a bill in May to do just that.
Retaining bonus depreciation would be far less costly than full expensing in terms of revenue—just $251 billion over a decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Critics of expensing still say they would rather see those savings go toward slashing the corporate rate.
The expensing proposal was already facing political headwinds. In July, Trump administration officials and congressional leaders released a broad statement of principles that suggested only a goal of “unprecedented expensing”—without defining that term. There have been no additional details since.
“Members are working on pro-growth tax reforms like lower rates and unprecedented expensing that would make America an attractive place to create businesses and jobs,” said Emily Schillinger, a spokeswoman for the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. “These reforms will also encourage companies to bring money back to the United States and invest it here.”
Here’s one reason why a corporate rate cut to the mid-20s might not spur much growth: Many companies already have that, at least in effective terms, because they use various tax strategies—permitted under the current code—to reduce the actual income taxes they pay.
“Cutting the top corporate tax rate to 20 or 25 percent would not provide a large tax cut to many U.S.-based multinationals,” said Mark Mazur, a former top Treasury tax official and director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. More than 250 of the largest U.S. companies paid an effective rate of 21.2 percent from 2008 to 2015, according to a recent study.
Full, immediate expensing would give companies incentives to reinvest and grow, proponents say. But if it’s less than full, the growth would be “more muted,” said senior analyst Scott Greenberg of the Tax Foundation.
Some conservatives have different views. Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are pushing for the lowest corporate rate possible. Turbocharging expensing “stands in the way of the rate reduction that would more reliably spur growth,” said Philip Ellender, president of government and public affairs at Koch Industries. “We maintain that corporate rate cuts are a more reliable pathway to growth.”
Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni said the company wants to see a focus on lowering the corporate tax rate, but it does support making bonus depreciation permanent.
AT&T spokeswoman Erin McGrath said that while the telecommunications firm benefits from accelerated expensing, the deduction may be of little to no help to media and services companies, which have significantly lower levels of capital investment. Lawmakers should set a lower corporate rate and consider expanding expensing, McGrath said. An Intel spokeswoman declined to comment.
Achieving the lowest possible tax rate has broad support among business groups. The Business Roundtable, an association of top chief executive officers, said its biggest priorities for tax reform are competitive business tax rates and a modern international tax system.
“As we await legislation, BRT does not plan on taking a position on expensing, or other separate provisions,” Matt Miller, vice president of the lobbying group, said in a statement. “Rather we will evaluate any legislation as a whole.”
Cutting the corporate rate is now “the number-one priority” for the National Retail Federation, said lobbyist David French. The group’s members include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer.
Proponents of full expensing have tied it to another proposal, which would eliminate a corporate tax deduction for net interest payments on loans. Trump and his advisers have signaled that they’d prefer to retain interest deductibility.
Limiting the interest deduction would hurt industries that borrow heavily, such as private equity and real estate. Restricting that deduction while offering enhanced expensing would unfairly advantage companies that spend money on physical things, said Gretchen Perkins, a partner at private equity firm Huron Capital Partners. Companies are becoming concerned that the overall tax rate cut won’t be large enough, according to Perkins.
“If the trade-off is a deduction now versus a lower tax rate, most taxpayers would choose a lower rate,” said Jane Rohrs, the director for the Federal Tax Accounting Periods, Methods & Credits Group at Deloitte Tax LLP and a former staffer at the Joint Committee on Taxation.
—With assistance from Erik Wasson
By Ben Steverman and Suzanne Woolley
Here’s what we know about the details of the tax reform plan: almost nothing.
Powerful lawmakers are promising at least a framework for the overhaul by the end of the month. The broad goals are lower rates for corporations and individuals, a simpler tax code with fewer brackets, and the elimination of the estate tax and the alternative-minimum tax.
Sound good? Beware.
If you save for retirement or itemize your tax deductions, you could end up paying thousands of dollars more after tax reform than you do now. To help pay for promised cuts, President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress are trying to raise revenue elsewhere.
And the best place to get this money may be the millions of Americans who use deductions and other such strategies to lower their tax bills.
Upper-middle-class taxpayers in particular could face a triple whammy. On the table are limits on—or even the elimination of—three of their favorite tax perks: deductions for mortgage interest and for state and local taxes and the ability to make pre-tax 401(k) retirement contributions.
These perks are popular with other taxpayers, too. Except for the very poor, Americans of all income levels can use 401(k)-style plans to lower their tax bills and save for retirement. The mortgage and local tax deductions are useful to the 30 percent of filers who itemize their tax returns. That includes 39 percent of filers earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year, 56 percent of those making $75,000 to $100,000, 77 percent earning $100,000 to $200,000, and 90 percent or more of those making $200,000-plus, Internal Revenue Service data show.
To figure out how much is at stake, we asked the Tax Institute at H&R Block to run some numbers. We looked at several hypothetical taxpayers with six-figure salaries, examining how much each one gains, and stands to lose, from tax provisions now under scrutiny.
Our five imaginary taxpayers are single homeowners under age 50 with salaries of $100,000, $200,000, $300,000, $400,000, and $500,000, with typical financial profiles for those income levels. They report some investment income in addition to their salaries, donate 5 percent of their salary to charity, and live in California, a state with a relatively high income tax.
Here’s what we found:
401(k) retirement tax break
Right now, workers can put up to $18,000 a year in a 401(k) retirement account, and another $6,000 if they’re 50 or older, bringing the total to $24,000. Those savings are made pre-tax, so they instantly drop a retirement saver’s income, and thus tax bill, in the eyes of the IRS. Money in a 401(k) is taxed only when it’s withdrawn from the account, possibly decades later.
Congress is exploring changes to the rules that would push workers to make more of their contributions to post-tax accounts, also known as Roth 401(k)s, from which money isn’t taxed when it’s withdrawn. For Congress, moving from traditional to Roth would bring in more money in the short term, even if it robs the Treasury of tax revenue later.
Workers would almost certainly notice the change.
For someone earning $200,000 or more and making the maximum possible contribution—as they should if they hope to keep up their standard of living in retirement—a traditional 401(k) cuts taxes owed by more than $8,000 a year. Even someone making $100,000 and saving half the maximum amount in a traditional 401(k) is lowering his or her tax bill by almost $3,000 a year. (To keep things simple, our taxpayers are single and childless, but these tax breaks can be just as valuable to couples and families.)
The possible “Rothification” of 401(k)s is worrying many retirement experts, along with the financial firms that manage that money.
“Comprehensive tax reform has the potential to be one of the biggest threats to our retirement system, in a way that ruins our incentives to save,” said Bradford Campbell, a partner at the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP who served in the U.S. Department of Labor overseeing employee benefits under former President George W. Bush.
Overall, tax breaks for 401(k)s and other workplace defined-contribution plans cost the U.S. government $102 billion this year, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan congressional research group. The number is expected to rise to $146 billion by 2020.
State and local taxes
Tax expert Robert Willens, of New York-based Robert Willens LLC, said an area of “huge concern” for his clients is the possibility that the deduction for state and local taxes, or SALT, will go away. In a high-tax locality like New York, a client making $1 million may end up paying $120,000 in state and local taxes, he said. By deducting those taxes on a 1040 return, the client might avoid $48,000 in federal taxes. If Congress kills the SALT, as the Trump administration has proposed, “that’s a massive tax increase,” Willens said.
The SALT will cost the government $69 billion this year, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates. It saves lots of money for our hypothetical taxpayers, who we assume live in highly taxed California.
While the SALT is most valuable in states with higher income taxes, it is used across the country to cushion the blow of local tax burdens, including sales and property taxes. For example, in Texas, which doesn’t have a state income tax, 23 percent of itemizers still claim a SALT deduction. In Maryland, 45 percent of itemizers claim it. In three wealthy New Jersey districts represented by Republicans, SALT deductions make up a hefty 10 percent of adjusted gross incomes.
Mortgage interest deduction
House Speaker Paul Ryan has promised to “maintain” the mortgage interest deduction, but he and other Republicans haven’t ruled out limiting the use of the tax break in some way.
Homeowners can currently deduct interest on their tax returns on $1 million in mortgage debt and another $100,000 in home equity loans, for both their first and their second homes. Our scenarios assume taxpayers took out a 30-year mortgage with a 4 percent rate to buy homes worth $375,000 to $750,000. The mortgage interest deductions end up lowering federal tax bills by $2,000 to $6,000 for these taxpayers, covering a significant share of the interest they pay each year.
Still, the deduction is a tempting target for tax reformers. In all, it will cost the U.S. Treasury $64 billion this year, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates.
Whammy, whammy, whammy
The Tax Institute at H&R Block re-ran the numbers as if all three tax breaks—401(k) contributions, mortgage interest, and SALT—were no longer available.
Combined, they’re worth from $6,500 to $31,000 annually to our upper-middle-class taxpayers.
Alternative minimum tax
It’s unlikely Congress would completely repeal all three of these tax breaks. If lawmakers end or tweak any of them, they could cushion the blow with other tax changes. One that could help affluent taxpayers is the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, or AMT. The AMT is a complicated parallel tax system designed to limit the amount by which wealthy taxpayers can lower their bills with lots of deductions.
In our scenarios, the wealthiest three taxpayers, making $300,000 or more, are affected by the AMT because they take big deductions for SALT, mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The AMT costs them each several thousand dollars a year. Eliminating it would help these taxpayers offset the loss of perks like the SALT.
Keep in mind, though, that Congress could kill the AMT but replace it with other provisions, probably simpler, that also limit deductions.
Another way Congress could help out wealthy taxpayers is by lowering their tax rates. Here again, the details matter.
For example, don’t confuse your overall rate with your marginal rate. Your marginal rate rises along with your income, as you pay different tax rates on different bands of income. The tax bracket your final dollars of income fall into is called your marginal tax rate. In our progressive tax system, the overall tax rate you pay can be much lower than your marginal rate. Research shows taxpayers often get this wrong. What ultimately matters, after tax reform, is your overall rate.
One idea being floated is a doubling or tripling of the standard deduction, an amount by which every taxpayer can lower their tax bills without itemizing. That could be a boon to upper-middle-class taxpayers who have relatively few deductions to make because they don’t have a mortgage, they live in a low-tax state, or they don’t contribute much to charity.
For affluent homeowners in high-tax states with lots of deductions, however, tax reform could be painful.
By Alexis Leondis
Dave Camp, the former head of Congress’s tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he doesn’t think a revamp of the U.S. tax code will happen this year.
“There are a lot of competing issues,” Camp said in a Bloomberg TV interview Wednesday. “I think they can make significant progress this fall—I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual signing of a bill or enacting into law doesn’t occur until sometime in early 2018.”
Camp, a Michigan Republican who now works as a senior policy adviser with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, said he expects lawmakers will spend September “blocking and tackling,” and trying to build consensus among Republicans for a tax overhaul.
President Donald Trump traveled to North Dakota Wednesday on the second stop of his sales pitch for overhauling the tax code. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has said it’s essential to complete a tax bill by the end of the year or it risks being derailed by political complications surrounding mid-term elections in 2018. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hasn’t committed to finishing legislation by the end of 2017; in May, he declined to put a deadline on it.
The so-called Big Six—made up of White House officials and congressional leaders involved in tax negotiations—jointly released a two-page statement in July that outlined a broad set of agreed-upon tax principles. Specifics, including such basic matters as where to set the corporate tax rate and how to set up individual tax brackets, have yet to emerge.
Camp said Congress has already done much of the work in terms of studying particular tax strategies.
“I think I did 30-plus” hearings on tax matters chairing the Ways and Means panel from 2011 to 2015, Camp said. Still, he said, deciding how to balance revenue raisers with tax-rate cuts will be difficult.
“I’m not overly optimistic that this is going to be a walk in the park,” he said.
Nobody likes a snitch. Well, nobody that is, except the IRS, who will reward you handsomely if you provide them with specific and reliable information about a tax cheat.
Yes, it’s true – there’s a program, called the IRS Whistleblower Program, managed by its Whistleblower Office. The IRS is very serious about collecting its debts and reducing the $460 billion tax gap, the difference between what the IRS thinks it should be collecting and what it actually does. The tax gap is a combination of under-reporting or underpaying tax liabilities, or simply not filing at all.
While the IRS may not send an agent out with a hammer or brass knuckles to ring a tax cheat’s doorbell at 3 a.m., it hopes to enlist honest citizens who know of tax fraud and who are willing to help the IRS collect what’s owed – with an award of up to 30% of the taxes, penalties, and interest it collects.
For the government’s fiscal year 2016, the IRS Whistleblower Program awarded 418 whistleblowers more than $61 million, at an average award of almost $146,000. Not chump change for someone who’s willing to inform on a tax cheat.
But before you snitch on your mother-in-law or your boss, keep in mind that the IRS also rejected 12,395 claims from whistleblowers because the allegations were considered “Not Specific, Credible, or are Speculative in Nature.” Also, be aware that the whistleblower program has a threshold amount of taxes, penalties and interest due before the IRS will take action. If the alleged tax cheat is a company, the unreported taxes must exceed $2 million, but if the alleged tax cheat is an individual, the threshold is gross income of at least $200,000.
Successful claimants generally can expect between 15% and 30% of the amounts collected by the IRS, with the actual percentage depending on several factors, such as the extent to which the whistleblower’s information contributed to the collection action. For example, if the whistleblower’s information was not very substantial or helpful compared to other sources of information, the percentage cannot exceed 10% of the amount collected.
If you know of someone, or some company, that meets the thresholds above, you still need to consider whether you want to start the claim process. For example, there might be other considerations such as who that tax cheat is (a sibling, your employer, etc.), and there may be other options to consider. For example, maybe the non-reporting is due to ignorance, and not willful noncompliance. Also, don’t bother initiating a claim based on speculation, suspicion, or a conversation. To succeed in collecting any taxes and penalties due, the IRS will need much stronger documentation than a hunch.
Only individuals (not companies) can initiate the process by completing Form 211, Application for Award for Original Information. But be patient – a successful whistleblower may not see any award for at least 5 to 7 years. Oh, by the way, any whistleblower award is taxable, so if you actually succeed in receiving any award, don’t forget to report it!
Disclaimer: This article is for general information purposes only, and is not intended to provide professional tax, legal, or financial advice. To determine how this or other information in this newsletter might apply to your specific situation, contact us for more details and counsel.