Congress has been twisting itself into knots to pass 70-odd special interest “expiring provisions” this spring, though without success. These provisions that have come within one or two votes of being extended one more time are almost all special-interest provisons, providing tax breaks or direct cash subsidies to folks like biodiesel producers and race-track operators.
Meanwhile, the grandaddy of all expiring provisions goes largely unmentioned. Without new legislation, 24 million additional taxpayers will pay alternative minimum tax this year. That will happen because the AMT exemption for joint returns will fall from $70,950 to $45,000, and from $46,700 to $33,750 for single filers.
The AMT is a shadow tax system with fewer deductions and credits and a different rate schedule; it only applies when it gives a higher tax than the “regular” income tax. The reduction of regular tax rates in 2001 brought the regular and AMT brackets much closer, threatening to bring millions of voters into the AMT system. Congress has been passing “patches” to raise the AMT exemption for a year or two at a time since 2001 to avoid that. The last “patch” expired at the end of 2009.
An unpatched AMT would hit hardest taxpayers in the $100,000-$500,000 income range. Congress doesn’t want to anger that many potential campaign contributors. But where will Congress find the $68 billion or so of income that the AMT is budgeted to raise next year without a patch? The six month unemployment extension failed yesterday in the Senate because it would have increased the deficit by $34 billion.
So what will happen? Presumably an AMT patch will pass to appease voters as the election approaches, deficits be damned. Still, that’s not certain, especially in the current political environment.
So what can taxpayers do? They should start by projecting their tax for 2010. If you have one, your tax preparer is likely to have software to enable you to run the projection. If you use home tax software, it may also include a tax projection feature. Otherwise, you will have to use a 2009 copy of Form 6251, but using the reduced 2010 exemption amounts. Then you should fiddle with some items that affect AMT:
• The timing of your state and local tax payments.
• The timing of your miscellaneous itemized deductions.
• The timing of your capital gains, including capital losses.
Don’t be surprised if you find you have alternative minimum tax no matter what you do, especially if you live in a high-tax state. Then call your Congresscritter and ask for your patch.
The Book of John says that Lazarus emerged from his tomb four days after his death. While impressive, Lazarus has nothing on the Section 41 Research Activities Tax Credit. While Lazarus is credited with only one extension, the Research Credit, first enacted in 1981 as a temporary measure, it has been extended at least 12 times — several times after it had expired.
If it’s such a wonderful tool for our economy, as its beneficiaries always say, and if it is y isn’t it just made permanent? There are two main reasons, one only slightly less cynical than the other.
First, the credit costs the government a lot of revenue. The one-year extension in H.R. 4213, the current “extender” bill, is scored as a $6.6 billion revenue-loser. By extending it only a year at a time, the Congresscritters disguise the real cost of the credit, which they have no intention of allowing to expire. Remember this phony accounting the next time some corporate shmoe trembles while Henry Waxman berates his accounting methods.
Even more cynical: it forces the lobbyists for the credit to pay tribute to their Congressional patrons every year to keep their pet corporate welfare provisions alive. A former Congressional staffer explains (my emphasis):
I never understood the “why” about expiring tax provisions until one very late night markup of the “extenders bill” several years ago while I was working for the Ways and Means Committee. Bleary-eyed, one of usually twinkly-eyed members plopped down in a chair next to me in back of the dais–just to take a little rest away from his member’s seat. I asked him “why do we have to do this every year?…why can’t we just pass these things permanently?”
His eyes suddenly twinkled again, as he looked at me with a combination of amusement and disbelief. He said: “Are you kidding me?… We couldn’t do that!… Why, I’d lose all my friends!…Who would come visit me and say kind things to me and do nice things for me then, if they didn’t have to come back every year to ask for these tax provisions?!!”
The research credit is just one of 70 or so “temporary” provisions included in this year’s omnibus “extender” bill. Other tax breaks critical to the continued robust functioning of the economy include the Indian employment tax credit, the special short depreciation life for qualified leasehold and restaurant improvements, subsidies for biodiesel, and the all-important “7-year recovery period for certain motorsports complexes.”
To “pay for” these “temporary” provisions, Congress each year reaches deeper into its bag of tricks for permanent tax increases. The chumps this year: private equity, hedge funds, and small professional corporations. When these things “expire” a year later, this year’s victims will continue to pay their higher tax without Congress having to pass another bill; they will be forgotten while Congress is busy looking for its next revenue fix. And like any junkie, it will give up the addiction only when it’s impossible to score.