Heated debate ahead on tax reform proposals

President Obama recently said that he wants a tax reform/deficit reduction package by August and lawmakers have many proposals to consider. The President has introduced a $3.77 trillion budget for fiscal year (FY) 2014 with a host of tax reform proposals, the House and Senate Budget Committees have approved competing deficit reduction and tax reform blueprints, other committees are exploring ideas for tax reform, and private groups, most notably authors of the Simpson-Bowles Plan, are also making proposals. Whatever proposals are adopted, the outcome is sure to impact your tax strategy and planning.

All of the proposals have one common goal: reduce the federal government’s approximate $16 trillion federal budget deficit. To reduce the budget deficit, many of the plans propose to cut spending and raise revenues. Lawmakers and the White House also want to replace sequestration (across-the-board spending cuts for many federal agencies) for FY 2014 and beyond. Replacing sequestration will require spending cuts, new revenue or a combination of both. Let’s take a look at how some of the tax proposals would affect individuals, businesses and others.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA), signed into law on January 2, 2013, set the individual tax rates at 10, 15, 25, 28, 33, 35 and 39.6 percent for 2013 and beyond. The House GOP budget blueprint would consolidate the current seven individual income tax rate brackets into two rates. The lower rate would be 10 percent with the goal of a top rate of 25 percent. The Simpson-Bowles plan also calls for lower rates but does not specify the amounts; however, lower rates would be contingent on eliminating certain tax credits and deductions, possibly some popular ones such as the home mortgage interest deduction. President Obama has not proposed any changes to the current individual income tax rates.

President Obama has, however, proposed a minimum 30 percent tax on individuals with incomes over $1 million (full phase in at $2 million). This was known as the “Buffett Rule” (now called the Fair Share Tax). President Obama would also limit the tax rate at which higher income individuals can reduce their tax liability to a maximum of 28 percent. This limit would apply to all itemized deductions; foreign excluded income; tax-exempt interest; employer sponsored health insurance; retirement contributions; and selected above-the-line deductions. Another proposal would limit contributions and accruals on tax-favored retirement accounts, including IRAs, qualified plans, tax-sheltered annuities, and deferred compensation plans.

The budget blueprint put forward by Senate Democrats makes similar proposals. The Senate plan would impose across-the-board limits on itemized deductions claimed by the top two percent of income earners, by capping the rate at which itemized deductions and other tax preferences reduce tax liability, a percentage of income cap, or a specific dollar cap. The Senate plan also proposes to change, without giving details, unspecified itemized deductions into tax credits.

Not surprisingly, the House plan, written by the GOP, does not include these proposals. Along with consolidating the individual tax rates, the House blueprint would repeal the 3.8 percent net investment income (NII) surtax and the 0.9 percent Additional Medicare Tax, both of which took effect in 2013. The House plan also calls for repealing the alternative minimum tax (AMT). The House plan also calls for tax simplification but does not give details.

Another proposal endorsed by the President but which will be a difficult sale in Congress is to increase the federal estate tax. ATRA “permanently” extended the estate tax at a maximum rate of 35 percent with a $5 million exclusion (indexed for inflation). President Obama wants to raise the maximum rate to 45 percent with a $3.5 million exclusion (not indexed for inflation) after 2017.

Reducing the U.S. corporate tax rate is a common goal of many of the tax reform proposals but they take different approaches. President Obama has said he would support lowering the corporate tax rate in exchange for businesses giving up unspecified tax preferences. These could include tax incentives for fossil fuels, the Code Sec. 199 deduction and more. The House blueprint would reduce the top corporate tax rate to 25 percent, paid for by tax savings elsewhere. The Simpson-Bowles plan also calls for a reduction in the corporate tax rate, contingent on businesses relinquishing unspecific tax preferences.

President Obama and the House and Senate budgets also propose a number of incentives to encourage business spending and job creation. These include:

• Enhanced small business expensing (Obama and House but at different amounts);
• Permanent research tax credit (Obama, House and Senate);
• Temporary tax credit for increasing payrolls (Obama); and
• Special incentives for manufacturing in the U.S. (Obama).

Another key difference among the competing proposals: the House budget plan would repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including all of its business tax-related provisions, such as employer-shared responsibility provisions, the medical device excise tax, and more. The Senate approved a non-binding resolution to repeal the medical device tax but is not expected to go along with repeal of the entire Affordable Care Act.

Internet sales tax
In May, the Senate passsed the Marketplace Fairness Act (H.R. 743). The bill gives states the authority to compel online merchants, no matter where they are located, to collect sales tax at the time of a transaction. However, states would be able to compel collection of sales tax only after they have simplified their sales tax laws, such as by adopting the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement. The bill has the support of President Obama.

However, the bill may not pass in the House, where many lawmakers view it as a tax increase.

Discussion drafts
The two Congressional tax writing committees – House Ways and Means and Senate Finance – are engaged in discussions among their members over tax reform. Ways and Means has produced three detailed discussion drafts exploring possible approaches to reforming the taxation of financial products, the taxation of small businesses and moving the U.S. to a territorial system of taxation. Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp, R-Mich., has promised to introduce tax reform legislation this year. Senate Finance has also produced four discussion drafts, less detailed than the House drafts, on simplifying the Tax Code, business taxation and education, and infrastructure, energy and natural resources. Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., has pledged his commitment to seeing tax reform through before his retirement, which he announced would start at the end of 2014.

Looking ahead
Tax reform coupled with deficit reduction is starting to gain momentum. Whether this will lead to legislation this summer or before year-end is unclear. As long as the key players continue their discussions, there is the chance of tax reform.

Our office will keep you posted of developments. Please contact our office if you have any questions about the tax reform proposals we have reviewed.

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