Friday, September 30, 2011

Infrastructure, Tolls, Barns, Jackasses, and Carpenters 

The subheadline of a Philadelphia Inquirer article earlier this week caught my eye. “People want improvements, but no one wants to pay for them.” Unfortunately, this disappeared from the online version of the article.

When I saw that subheadline, I immediately thought of various MauledAgain posts in which I had made the same point. I touched in this problem in Funding the Infrastructure: When Free Isn’t Free, in The Price of Insufficient Tax Revenue, in No Tax Increases, No Fee Increases, No Roads, No Bridges?, and in Being Thankful for User Fees and Taxes. The underlying tension between wanting something and not wanting to pay was corroborated by the poll that I discussed in Poll on Tax and Spending Illustrates Voter Inconsistency.

The article in question described, among other things, the frustration faced by regional planners who are trying to fix regional problems, including many that adversely affect the economy. For example, for years there has been agreement that the choked traffic on Route 422 needs to be alleviated in some way. One of the proposals is to impose a toll on that highway. When this proposal first emerged, I explained, in Toll One Road, Overburden Others?, why this is not a good way to raise the required revenue and why, as readers of MauledAgain know, the solution is the mileage-based road fee, a topic on which I have written numerous times, in Tax Meets Technology on the Road, and thereafter in Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again, Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy, Pennsylvania State Gasoline Tax Increase: The Last Hurrah?, Making Progress with Mileage-Based Road Fees, Mileage-Based Road Fees Gain More Traction, Looking More Closely at Mileage-Based Road Fees, The Mileage-Based Road Fee Lives On, and Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee So Terrible?.

The proposed toll would be used to add lanes to Route 422, widen bridges, install monitoring and signaling equipment, and to restore a commuter rail line that runs parallel to the road. Absent a toll, the executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission predicts it will take decades to come up with the money. He did not, however, mention mileage-based road fees. But perhaps he is just as pessimistic about the prospect of those being enacted.

At the community forum held recently on this proposal, the audience almost universally spoke out against tolls. One question was very telling. Someone asked, “Why should I pay for someone else to ride the train?” The article doesn’t disclose the answer, or if there was an answer. But the answer is simple. The toll not only purchases an improved road, it purchases space on the improved road by making train use economically efficient and attractive to someone who would otherwise be using the road, but who would give up road use if train use was economically more desirable. That’s a far different matter than paying a toll to fund unrelated projects, as I discussed in Soccer Franchise Socks It to Bridge Users, Bridge Motorists Easy Mark for Inflated User Fees, Restricting Bridge Tolls to Bridge Care, Don't They Ever Learn? They're At It Again, A Failed Case for Bridge Toll Diversions, DRPA Reform Bandwagon: Finally Gathering Momentum, When User Fee Diversion Smacks of Private Inurement, and Toll Increases Ought Not Finance Free Rides.

Though citizens attending the meeting and most legislators oppose tolling, when asked, “What else are you willing to do to solve the problem,” they are silent. It isn’t very helpful to simply claim that the government needs to do more with less. Unless, perhaps, they advocate going to gravel roads that become rutted tracks because of reduced capital and operating outlays. More lanes, less paving material. There’s some more with less for these people who want to ride free when there is a cost to what they are doing.

The underlying problem is that an increasing proportion of the nation’s citizens are people who grew up accustomed to getting without giving, or at least getting more than has been given. As I explained in Being Thankful for User Fees and Taxes, “Though anti-tax sentiment is popular, it too often is expressed in thoughtless condemnation of all taxes, as well as user fees. At some baser level, perhaps tied into the limbic system, humans simply prefer to get as much as they can get for free. They dislike taxes, but complain no less when paying bills or forking over cash at the checkout counter. Perhaps the trait is acquired and refined during childhood, when life for many people does appear to be an experience of getting things for nothing.”

Sadly, the focus on reducing what is paid in the short-term overlooks the longer term price that will be exacted. Consider Future Mobility in Pennsylvania: The Condition, Use and Funding of Pennsylvania’s Roads, Bridges and Transit System, a report issued by TRIP, a “non profit organization that researches, evaluates and distributes economic and technical data on surface transportation issues.” Lest anyone doubt the nonpartisan character of the organization, it “is sponsored by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, distributors and suppliers; businesses involved in highway and transit engineering, construction and finance; labor unions; and organizations concerned with an efficient and safe surface transportation network.” As I pointed out, again in Being Thankful for User Fees and Taxes:
After reading the report, I wondered how the yes and no responses would turn out if each motorist in Pennsylvania were to be asked this question: “Would you be willing to pay an addition $1 per gallon in gasoline taxes if the proceeds of that tax were used to improve and repair Pennsylvania highways and bridges?” My guess is that most people would say “No.” I wonder what would happen if people understood that those improvements and repairs, by decreasing congestion, enhancing safety, and reducing vehicle operating costs, would save each motorist an average of $800, to say nothing of creating jobs. Motorists in Philadelphia would save $1,500 each year, while those in other urban areas would save between $900 and $1,000.
This sort of reasoning finds little favor among those who are the first to complain if a public good disappears or is not up to par, but lead the charge opposing taxes, tolls, and any other funding for the things they demand. Somewhere between being an infant, when nothing is paid for what is taken, and reaching the stage of responsible citizenship, some sort of transformation needs to occur. Recently, it hasn’t been happening. As the Inquirer article notes, in bemoaning the lack of public leadership from elected officials and the inability of citizens to understand the true cost of what they demand, former House Speaker Sam Rayburn put it best, “Any jackass can kick down a barn. It takes a good carpenter to build one.” The article concludes, “At this moment in Pennsylvania politics there don’t appear to be many carpenters left.” How true. How sad. How disappointing.

At least when I hear someone complain about traffic on Route 422, I have the option of asking the person’s position on tolls. Or mileage-based road fees. I take education opportunities wherever I can find them. Perhaps one by one, people will have the opportunity to give deep thought and apply reasoning to situations that too often get the simple “take but don’t give” instinctive mentality with which we are born. Instinct without reason does not nurture a civilized society.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Taxes and the Funding of (De)Regulated Markets 

The anti-tax lobby is fond of singing the praises of the “free market” and justifying, in part, their aversion to taxation because it provides funds for government “interference” in the private sector. I’m a fan of the private sector when it works well, but I’m also a fan of regulation sufficient to persuade the private sector to work well and to rescue the victims of the private sector when it does not work well. Several years ago, in Keeping Free Markets Free, I rested my criticism of market deregulation on, among other things, this conclusion: “I do think that the market is not providing sufficient quantities of necessary goods.”

Last week, in Drug Shortage Stirs Fears, the Associated Press disclosed that its investigations uncovered at least 15 deaths during the past 15 months attributable to a “severe nationwide shortage of drugs for chemotherapy, infections, and other serious ailments.” Hospital pharmacists, we are told, “are scrambling to find drugs.” Among the reasons for the problem are insufficient profit margins, a near-monopoly in the industry, theft, and an unlicensed “gray market” that is buying up these medications and selling them at “many times the normal price.” There is no way for the medical profession to determine whether drugs moving through the “gray market” have been properly refrigerated or are still within their expiration dates.

The Food and Drug Administration and the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have held hearings on the issue. Leaving regulation as it is or prescribing less regulation is a recipe for more deaths and disease. Increasing regulation surely will bring howls of protest from those who benefit from the insufficient regulation. Increased regulation will require funding. Funding requires revenue. I wonder if “tax and spend” is a truly horrible thing even if the “tax and spend” is designed to help Americans stay healthy. In Can Tax Rebates Help Prove Malthus Wrong?, I explained why the free market’s supply-demand curve “works well for some things, but . . . becomes very inelastic when dealing with life's basic necessities.” In It Could Be Worse Than Taxation, Worse Than Stimulus, I explained that, “Sometimes the so-called free market doesn’t do what it needs to do because it really isn’t free.” As I pointed out in Keeping Free Markets Free, “The market is unfree because there are biases, there is corruption, there is bullying, there is cheating, there are monopolistic practices, there are all sorts of behaviors, characteristics, and practices that are inimical to the notion of ‘free.’”

Surely the anti-tax lobby will hold to the proposition that any increase in funding for regulating the pharmaceuticals market, assuming that they lose the anti-regulation effort, should come from other programs. This is the approach that they have been taking, for example, with respect to disaster relief funding, as I explained in Storms, Public Infrastructure, and Taxes and in Disaster Relief, Taxes, and Offsets. The absurdity of this position is highlighted by the following questions: Was the government’s protection of citizens against widespread drug shortages hampered by cuts in the FDA’s budget? Were those cuts made to provide funding for other programs? People are dying because of the ideological biases of a small minority holding a nation hostage. But that doesn’t seem to matter to those who detest government, taxes, and regulation.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Disaster Relief, Taxes, and Offsets 

Last month, in Storms, Public Infrastructure, and Taxes, I criticized the posture of the anti-tax crowd for its insistence that governments should fund disaster relief only through cuts in other programs. I summarized the anti-tax position as follows: “So in the anti-tax world, the county that wants to replace the washed out bridge or the city that wants to restore train service needs to eliminate police departments, lay off fire fighters, close down the sewage treatment plant, or reduce already bare-bone services to the citizenry.”

Now we are getting an opportunity to see how this plays out at the federal level. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, the two agencies primarily responsible for assisting Americans after natural and other disasters strike, are just about out of money. The Congress is now engaged in a drama that rivals the debt ceiling increase circus, but that is getting less attention. Perhaps one reason it is getting less attention is that the process and the debate are so convoluted one needs more than a road map to follow the twists and turns.

A full account of how Congress has been handling this problem can be found in several places, including this story. Additional funding for FEMA and the Corps of Engineers is wrapped into legislation that provides temporary spending that keeps the government running for seven weeks beginning on October 1, when the new fiscal year begins. This stop-gap is required because Congress has failed to approve a budget and enact spending authorization for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2012.

Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives defeated a Republican proposal to authorize $1 billion in disaster funding when the legislation is signed and $2.6 billion for the September 30, 2012, fiscal year. The legislation “offset” the $1 billion with a $1.5 billion cut in a loan program designed to assist car manufacturers increase the production of fuel-efficient vehicles. How did a Republican proposal fail to get through a Republican-controlled House? Forty-eight Republicans voted “no,” not because they were offended with the notion that $1.5 billion in spending was being cut to provide $1 billion in disaster relief money, but because they object to what they see as excessive government spending in the proposal. So the Republican leadership tinkered with the legislation. The bill was amended to cut $100 million from a federal loan program designed to make the nation less dependent on foreign oil. That $100 million cut, a drop in the bucket, somehow convinced 23 Republicans to flip their position on the legislation, which then squeaked by on Thursday.

In the meantime, the Democratic-controlled Senate, in response to a request by the President for $5.1 billion in additional funding for FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, approved $6.9 billion. The legislation passed with bipartisan support, and did not include spending offsets.

After the Republican-controlled House managed to pass the modified Republican legislation, Senate Democrats suggested they could live with the reduced amount of funding, provided the offsets were removed, even though the amount of funding in the House bill is “insufficient.” Nonetheless, Democratic legislators understandably are accusing certain Republicans of taking a “my way or the highway” approach, while Republicans bicker among themselves.

As of Friday, Congress was slated to go on recess for a week. By the time it would reconvene, the new fiscal year will open. Without resolution of this issue, the government is unfunded, and could partially shut down. The House Majority Leader, however, confidently predicted that there would be an agreement. The Senate Majority leader had suggested agreement was possible, but made that comment before the House added offsets to the legislation. He predicted either weekend sessions or a delay in the recess, whereas his House counterpart’s reaction to a weekend session was, “I surely hope not.”

Agreement will happen only if one of three things occurs. First, the Senate gives in to the current House version of the legislation. Second, the House agrees to the Senate version. Third, a compromise is reached. The first two possibilities are possibilities in name only. Compromise is difficult because a significant group of Representatives are opposed to any sort of compromise and have a track record of getting in the way of compromise. The only reason it is not absurd to predict that an agreement will be reached, somehow, is the political impact of subjecting an unhappy electorate to yet another manifestation of governance gridlock.

Opponents of government spending, many of whom, admittedly or not, are opponents of government, period, reminisce blissfully about the way things were a long time ago, so long ago that it was before they were born. Yes, there was a time when government disaster relief did not exist. Is that what these anti-tax people want? Then say so. Stand up and say so. Stand up and tell Americans that you oppose funding of efforts to end reliance on foreign oil. Stand up and tell Americans that you oppose funding efforts to increase the use of solar energy. Don’t wrap it up in some sort of “offset game.” Don’t hold disaster relief and the people in need of assistance as hostages in your anti-government and anti-tax campaign.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Taxes As a Weapon in Class Warfare 

Even before the President formally announced his plan to ensure that wealthy individuals did not pay federal income taxes at rates lower than those imposed on less fortunate individuals, the Republicans, as reported in stories such as this one, lambasted the proposal, accusing the President of triggering “class warfare.” In response, when he unveiled his plan, the President succinctly stated, as widely reported, including this story, that “This is not class warfare.”

Guess what? They’re all wrong.

When a class of individuals, even if not joined by everyone within the class, attempts to take away from another class of individuals, even if not everyone in that class is targeted, that constitutes “class warfare.” So take careful note, I am again criticizing the President. Sorry, President Obama, but you are wrong. This is class warfare.

But the Republicans similarly are in error. The President’s proposal is a defensive tactic on behalf of the majority of Americans, an attempt to regain what has been taken earlier in the class war. This particular class war began when wealthy individuals saw an opportunity to make their economic position even more advantageous, by “persuading” their Congressional lackeys and a compliant President to reduce their taxes during wartime, and to gain popular support for a foolish move by tossing several nickel-and-dime tax breaks for not-so-wealthy Americans. The effect of those tax cuts, the overwhelming bulk of which went to the upper class, was to wreck the economy for everyone else. Though some among the wealthy caught the wrong end of the boomerang and experienced asset reduction, it’s much easier to cope with a 30% loss of income or a 20% decline in investment value when one is starting with hundreds of millions of dollars or more of wealth and income than when one has barely $5,000 in assets and a $25,000 salary.

This recent bout of class warfare – something that has been around as long as there have been civilizations – involves far more than taxes. A number of factors are contributing to the rapid speed with which the wealthy are out-distancing, by orders of magnitude, the rest of the population. Consider that the advocates of preserving, and even enlarging, tax cuts for the wealthy are also found among those who are attempting to eliminate unions, scale back or eliminate Medicare, reduce or repeal the social security system, back away from health care reform in a manner that leaves the vulnerable bereft of medical assistance, and cut spending that primarily assists those who are losing the current class war. Casualties from the economic chaos of the past decade include the Medicaid program, the nation’s infrastructure, environmental protection, and public education. It’s not the wealthy who suffer from these national deprivations.

The important question is “Why?” Is it just a matter of using one’s excess wealth to acquire additional, ostensibly to create jobs that never materialized but perhaps to satisfy some sort of addiction? I think not. That could still be accomplished, though perhaps requiring a little more time, without destroying the middle class. The goal is more than just amassing wealth. The goal is to acquire control of the political system. Throughout history, the middle class – whether artisans or scholars, whether craftsmen or small merchants – have posed a threat to the power elite. Royalty, nobility, and peasants is the mix that works best for royalty and nobility. Whenever the middle class has prospered, royalty and nobility have not. Think 1776. Think 1789. It is important to note that democracy flourishes when the middle class prospers, and that when the middle class doesn’t exist, or is marginalized, democracy exists, if at all, in name only. By siphoning wealth to itself, the wealthy class undermines the political power of the middle class, and when it uses its wealth to mislead voters into supporting the very practices that voters profess to resent, it subverts the nation’s existential democratic nature. The poor and the middle class aren’t the ones pouring truckloads of money into political campaigns, often masked through corporate and foreign conduits.

In his explanation of why the President’s attempt to eliminate instances of wealthy individuals paying taxes at lower rates than others, to say nothing of the various phase-out bubbles that place the highest effective marginal rates on the middle class, must be rejected, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spewed out the same old disproven canard. He offered this declaration: “But we don’t want to stagnate this economy by raising taxes.” Consider that taxes make money available to hire people to fix the nation’s infrastructure, to restore the nation’s civic integrity through public education, and to fund programs that ultimately gave the world microwaves, advanced plastics, the internet, and a long list of technical and scientific advances sourced in government programs, to give but a few examples of why taxes are the price paid for a civilized and democratic society. The claims that cutting taxes for the wealthy stimulates the economy, and that restoring an unwise and unproven tax break for the wealthy will hurt the economy, is nonsense. Someday those beliefs will find themselves on the dust-heap of history along with things such as flat-earth claims and the assertion that the sun rises in the north. What McConnell should have said is, “But we don’t want to stagnate this economy, which is working so well for the wealthy and terribly for everyone else, by letting unwise tax cuts expire.” Of course he won’t say that. It’s not something they want Americans to know.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Toll Increases Ought Not Finance Free Rides 

When reality hits the ideal, the ideal almost always caves in. Consider what has been happening when the anti-tax crowd meets the reality of revenue shortfalls. They increase tolls, perhaps thinking that constituents will be fooled by the absence of the phrase “raise taxes,” and then use the increased toll revenue for purposes other than maintaining the toll road and paying for its wider adverse impacts. Worse, these anti-tax advocates, also staunch opponents of government borrowing, have instructed toll commissions to borrow money to be repaid through increased future tolls. Do they really think they are fooling the citizens who bother to educate themselves about this issue?

Fortunately, I’m not the only person trying to educate people on the “we won’t raise things called taxes but we’ll get you in other ways” anti-tax scam. In N.J., Pa. Tap Toll-Road Funds for General Road Projects, Paul Nussbaum, a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, describes how Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been diverting tolls from toll road maintenance to other projects. Those responsible for the toll roads project that over time those roads will deteriorate because of decreased monies available for maintenance.

There are some who argue that tolls should be diverted to other uses. The reasoning is questionable. One advocate claims that because the “transportation network is interconnected, . . . it makes sense to use toll revenue on projects that reduce traffic congestion” on the toll roads. Wait. It makes sense to divert revenue so that revenue can be decreased through reduced usage of the toll road? Why not a fee on train passengers to pay for the bridges that toll roads need to build to go over or under railroad tracks? The silliness of that question demonstrates the weakness of the toll diversion justification argument. When New Jersey’s governor proposed the toll-diversion scheme, I took it apart in User Fees and Costs, and the followup, When User Fees Exceed Costs: What to Do?.

The numbers are not insignificant. According to Nussbaum, last week the New Jersey Turnpike Authority agreed to divert another $324 million to the state. He also discloses that “[s]ince 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has sent $3.1 billion - more than it collected in tolls - to Harrisburg for statewide use.” How did they manage to do that? The legislature planned to impose a toll on I-80. Thinking that this was money in the bank, the legislature, before getting clearance from the Federal Highway Administration, ordered the Turnpike Commission to borrow billions of dollars, and to turn that money over for repairs to other roads and highways. The amount? Nearly one billion dollars a year. The folks who pulled this stunt have committed the turnpike to paying half a billion dollars a year for 47 years, to be funded by annual toll increases on a highway that had only five increases in 68 years. When the I-80 toll proposal was disapproved by the FHA, the legislature mandated toll increases on turnpike users to pay for the money it spent before it actually had that money. Keep in mind who did this. Politicians who have accumulated votes by criticizing deficit spending. Folks, spending money that one does not have and might not ever have, is deficit spending. Can you spell “hypocrite”?

And tolls are scheduled to increase in 2012 for all the toll roads in both states. In New Jersey the increases are at least 50 percent. Yes, you read that correctly, 50 percent. And this from the legislators and governors who claim to be anti-tax because increased government revenue is such a bad thing. Apparently it’s not a bad thing when it provides politicians with dollars to funnel to their pet projects without raising anything with the name of “taxes.” They think they can get away with this because they think citizens are ignorant (and if they are, the politicians are in many ways responsible, from underfunding public education to peppering society with misleading sound bites). In User Fees and Costs, I explained that “Supporters of the [New Jersey toll diversion] plan think that motorists using E-Z-Pass won't object as much as they otherwise would because the don't 'see the actual fees' being paid.” Who has the moral high ground on this point?

I had predicted that the I-80 tolling plan would not work, because it diverted tolls. Had the legislature been paying attention, it would have designed the plan as a true toll arrangement and not as a hidden revenue generator. In Are State Gasoline Taxes the Best Source of Highway Revenue?, I rejected the I-80 toll diversion plan by arguing, “It makes no sense to require drivers using the turnpike or I-80 to subsidize repairs to Routes 1, 3, 320, 252, or 202, to name but a few highways in the southeastern part of the state where I live.” In Raising Revenue Through Tolls Isn't Simple, I explained, “[The FHA] concluded that Pennsylvania's proposal did not adequately meet the threshold for the three-state federal plan. The FHA noted that Pennsylvania did not demonstrate that the tolls would be used only for I-80 improvements. The FHA did not seem to agree that toll revenues used to fund highways and bridges elsewhere in the state constituted operating costs of I-80.” I had that one right from the beginning. Harrisburg, though, was not listening or reading. Had it been sensible with the I-80 toll proposal, it would have generated sufficient funds for maintaining and improving that important road. But by reaching for too much more, the legislature proved once again the saying about bears, bulls, and pigs.

The diversion of tolls to other uses is not a new ploy. For example, for years the Delaware River Port Authority used tolls for all sorts of projects having nothing to do with maintenance and repair of the bridges under its supervision. I explored this in Soccer Franchise Socks It to Bridge Users, Bridge Motorists Easy Mark for Inflated User Fees, Restricting Bridge Tolls to Bridge Care, Don't They Ever Learn? They're At It Again, A Failed Case for Bridge Toll Diversions, DRPA Reform Bandwagon: Finally Gathering Momentum, and When User Fee Diversion Smacks of Private Inurement. The warning I provided in DRPA Reform Bandwagon: Finally Gathering Momentum is one that should be viewed carefully by turnpike users, other motorists, and legislators, though the latter might not do so until pressure is brought by motorists. I explained:
Some time ago, I criticized the decision of the Delaware River Port Authority to use toll revenues for contributions to the construction of a major league soccer stadium. In Soccer Franchise Socks It to Bridge Users, I pointed out that tolls paid for the use of a bridge should be used for the maintenance and repair of the bridge and not for other purposes, as the DRPA had become accustomed to doing. In a follow-up, Bridge Motorists Easy Mark for Inflated User Fees, I noted the absurdity of the DRPA’s call for increased bridge tolls because it needed money to repair its bridges. Perhaps had money not been diverted to soccer stadium construction and other projects, there would have been funds for the DRPA to perform its stated functions. The criticisms that I, and a few others, offered fell on deaf ears, as a year later, I explained in Don't They Ever Learn? They're At It Again that the DRPA had announced plans to funnel more toll revenues into projects having nothing to do with the bridges and waterways it is charged with tending. Shortly thereafter, in A Failed Case for Bridge Toll Diversions, I lambasted the governor of Pennsylvania for his unwise attempt to justify using bridge tolls for other purposes.
(emphasis added).

What should be funded by tolls? In User Fees and Costs, I explained:
The toll should be based on the cost of building, expanding, improving, repairing, maintaining, policing, and monitoring the road. It isn't difficult for a cost accountant to determine how much it costs to operate the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, or any other toll road. Tolls should be increased as costs increase, and though it is preferable to recalculate the cost each year, it might be easier to use some sort of inflation index and do the cost recalculation every four or five years. . . .

. . . The analysis I support is one that looks at the impact of the toll road and its use on surrounding residents, neighborhoods, and infrastructure. Traffic volume surrounding a toll road interchange is higher than it otherwise would be, and that generates additional costs for the local government. It makes sense to include in the toll an amount that offsets the cost of widening adjacent highways, installing traffic signals, increasing the size of the local police force, adding resources to local emergency service units, and similar expenses of having a toll road in one's backyard. I understand the argument that because the locality benefits economically from the existence of the toll road and its interchange that it ought not be subsidized by the toll road. It is unclear, though, whether the toll road is a net benefit or disadvantage. If it were such a wonderful thing, why are new roads so vehemently opposed by so many towns and civic organizations?

Using toll revenue to maintain and repair roads and infrastructure far from the toll road is more difficult to justify. Other than relying on arguments such as the maintenance of a high quality state-wide road network that would attract more tourists and business ventures, proponents of siphoning toll revenue to distant areas have a, sorry, tough road to hoe. A better approach would be to impose tolls on heavily used roads in those distant areas.
I reiterated this analysis, more succinctly, in Timing, Quantifying, and Allocating User Fees, by explaining, “Tolls should be used to pay for the costs of building, repairing, maintaining, and operating the toll road, and to defray the economic burden that the road imposes on the surrounding neighborhoods. Tolls should not be used for programs unrelated to the road.”

The toll diversion arrangement rests on the erroneous claim that because most roads cannot be tolled because there’s no feasible way of installing toll booths and limiting access, the only solution true to fuel tax increase opposition is to jack up the tolls on whatever toll roads exist, and divert the excess to other roads. That approach, of course, opens the door to the DRPA misuse of tolls, by diverting the excess tolls to other purposes, a ploy now being used in New Jersey. There is of course, a viable and sensible alternative. As I wrote in Toll One Road, Overburden Others?:
Yes, it’s the mileage-based road fee. I’ve written about this approach many times, beginning in Tax Meets Technology on the Road, and thereafter in Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again, Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy, Pennsylvania State Gasoline Tax Increase: The Last Hurrah?, Making Progress with Mileage-Based Road Fees, Mileage-Based Road Fees Gain More Traction, Looking More Closely at Mileage-Based Road Fees, The Mileage-Based Road Fee Lives On, and Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee So Terrible?
Will politicians figure this out before it’s too late? One can only hope.

In Are State Gasoline Taxes the Best Source of Highway Revenue?, I observed, “It doesn't help when a leading state legislator describes tolls as the 'wave of the future,' because in doing so, what he demonstrates is a surprising ignorance about the actual wave of the future that already is in the present, namely, mileage-based road fees.” Now I understand why state legislators like tolls. It would be much more difficult to pull off the diversion stunt with mileage-based road fees. Which is even more the reason to push for the replacement of tolls with mileage-based road fees.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Do Lower Taxes, Less Regulation Create Jobs? Do Payroll Tax Cuts, Employment Credits, More Section 179 Expensing, Unemployment Benefits Create Jobs? 

On one thing, almost everyone can agree. The economy is a mess, as evidenced by the number of people lacking employment. On something else, almost no one can agree. Specifically, what is the recipe for fixing the economy?

President Barack Obama has proposed a plan that continues, expands, and extends to employers the existing payroll tax cut for employees, extends unemployment benefits, funnels money for hiring construction workers, police, firefighters, and teachers, continues and expands the 100 percent equipment purchase deduction, and adds credits for hiring workers. Republicans have a different solution. For example, according to Speaker of the House John Boehner, the solution is lower corporate tax rates and a roll back of environmental and labor regulations.

They’re all wrong. They parade out failed strategies and unsuccessful tactics. Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is well known. When it comes to choosing between politicians and Einstein, I’m for Einstein.

Aside from one proposal, the linchpins of the President’s plan not only have a failed track record but also pose the risk of counterproductive consequences. The payroll tax cut did little, if anything, to fix the problems, because the economy is no better at this point than it was when that cut was enacted, and it might even be, by some measures, worse. As a short-term band-aid, it was worth the attempt. As long-term surgery, it fails. It costs too much. It undermines funding for the Social Security program. As I pointed out in Two Types of Tax Increases, “The answer might not be an extension of the social security tax cut.”

It should be obvious that extending unemployment benefits does not create jobs. The better thing to do is to exchange benefits for services, not unlike what happened in the 1930s when America, similarly burdened with a failing economy caused by the risky games of the wealthy, needed to get its financial position restored to its potential. This is why the proposal to spend money to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure, makes sense. I explained why this is so, four years ago, in Funding the Infrastructure: When Free Isn't Free. Four more years of rot and rusting only makes the situation worse.

The idea of continuing and expanding the section 179 expensing deduction for equipment purchases a senseless one. It may have been a worthwhile bandage a few years ago, but the economy continued to hemorrhage despite that provision. If anything, it benefits businesses that would have made purchases in any event. A business with no need to make a purchase will not make a purchase simply because the cost is deductible in the year of purchase rather than over a three or five year period. Among my several posts attacking this giveaway to those least in need is If At First It Doesn’t Work, Try, Try, Try Again, not my first criticism of the current President’s tax proposals (a point I make in response to those who consider my economic analysis to focused on criticism of one side of the partisan divide).

Tax credits for hiring people have been in the tax law for a long time. Congress has tinkered with those credits numerous times. Almost every year, the credit has been renamed, duplicated, fine-tuned, and expanded. Those efforts do no good. Why? A business with no need of an employee does not hire someone simply because a fraction of the salary will generate a tax reduction. A business with need of an employee possessing a particular skill needed by the business cannot simply hire just anyone who walks in the door, even if that person brings along a tax credit. Throughout the recession, the employment classifieds have continued to run, and to contain numerous listings. The problem is that too many Americans do not have the skills that businesses seek.

The Republicans’ position fares no better. The consequence of lower corporate tax rates would be retention by corporations of even more cash. Corporations already are drowning in cash. Corporations are not spending that cash, even though most corporate spending would bring reductions in taxable income and thus reductions in tax liability. Corporations are not spending cash because they are self-insuring against the next fiscal fiasco, while waiting, perhaps hopelessly, for the Congressional merry-go-round of continual tax and spending changes and battles to come to an end.

The desire to roll back, translate, and eliminate environmental and labor regulations is understandable once the philosophy of the advocates of this backwards move is understood. Labor regulations are all that stand between the greed of the multi-billionaires and the safety and wage security of workers. When left to their own devices, for example, in the nineteenth century, the barons of industry exploited the working class. Only after someone in authority -- translate, government -- stepped in to protect the downtrodden did the middle class begin to emerge. And only after the middle class emerged did this nation come to prosper in the second half of the twentieth century as the world’s leading economy and a nation to which people across the globe looked for inspiration and economic opportunity. Until, of course, the downtrodden barons of industry started dismantling it. Environmental regulations are all that stand between the greed of the multi-billionaires and the health of the citizenry. Repeal of environmental protection surely means reduced expenses, and thus increased profits, for the barons of industry. Before there was environmental regulation, the air in most cities was a health hazard, rivers were flowing with sewage and industrial pollutants, toxic waste dumps proliferated, and natural resources were ravished. Rolling back these regulations will create jobs. For morticians, undertakers, and grave diggers.

The answer, as I’ve explained for years, is to undo the cause of the economic mess. The Bush tax cuts need to expire. The Bush tax cuts were enacted in response to a promise that they would create jobs. They did not create jobs, at least not in this country. They created pools of money that were either stashed abroad, for example, in Swiss banks, or were invested in bad deals designed to extract up-front fee income while bundling bad loans into packaged investments that poisoned pension plans and small businesses. That, in turn, brought the Bush TARP boondoggle, which added economic insult to economic injury.

Though the defenders of low or even repealed taxes for the ultra-wealthy claim that they should be permitted to “keep what they earned,” the reality is that few of the ultra-wealthy earned what they have through physical or intellectual labor. As I predicted long before there was this or any other blog, the proliferation of Crummey life insurance trusts among the wealthy had the effect of creating an entire class of super-wealthy who had done nothing to attain their economic status other than by chance being born to the right parents. Even those who generate wealth through their own efforts benefit from the activities of others. A doubling of the world’s population doubles the demand for a product or service, and at least doubles the profits, without the provider of the product or service lifting so much as a fingernail to move up the economic ladder.

All of this could be excused if the outcome was beneficial across the board. Perhaps the middle and lower classes would not begrudge the “success” of the wealthy if the economic benefits indeed trickled down. But that’s not what trickled down. During the era of the Bush tax cuts, the rich got much richer, the poor barely held their own, the middle class began to disappear, jobs vanished, infrastructure corroded, and the nation’s international reputation as an economic dynamo went down the tubes. That is why more of the same, including the bulk of the President’s proposals and the bulk of the Republicans’ proposals are nothing more than insanity. Is it not time for rational thinking to trump the politics? Sadly, I doubt that will or can happen.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The IRS and Forms 1099-INT: We Remain Curious 

One of the benefits of writing this blog is that it gives me the opportunity to learn. Last week, in Does the IRS Issue Forms 1099? Should It?, I asked whether the IRS is required to issue Forms 1099 when it pays interest, whether it does so, and whether it ought to do so. Two days later, in More on the IRS and Form 1099-INT, I shared one response that came my way. Mary Lew Kehm, a CPA and PFS (personal financial specialist) reported that she has had clients who received Forms 1099-INT from the Treasury Department. Like me, she could not figure out why the taxpayer in Megibow v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2011-211, the case that triggered my questions, did not receive a Form 1099 for interest paid by the IRS. After doing a bit more research, I shared my discovery that the Treasury Department issues Forms 1099-INT with respect to some, but not all, discounts on, and redemptions of, Treasury obligations. That there is inconsistency seems an inescapable conclusion.

Two more replies have arrived. A practitioner in upstate New York reports that “most” of his clients do receive Forms 1099-INT in connection with interest paid to them by the IRS. He suggests that but for those forms he might not otherwise know that the clients had received interest. James Brower, a CPA with a Masters of Science in Taxation who practices not far from me, also reports that Forms 1099-INT are issued with respect to interest paid by the IRS, though he does not think the IRS is required to issue those forms. He explains:
IRC §6049 spells out the rules regarding when payments of interest need to be reported to the IRS. However, IRC §6049(b) has its own definition of “interest” which is much narrower in scope from that of IRC §163. If you read through IRC §6049(b) you will see what payments constitute “interest” for purposes of 1099-INT reporting, and you won’t find interest paid on tax refunds listed there.

Also, if you look at Treasury Regulation §1.6049-5(b)(4) you will see that for purposes of 1099-INT reporting, interest does not include “interest that a governmental unit pays with respect to tax refunds.” I think that the Regulation pretty much answers the question.
Mr. Brower suggests that the IRS – and some states – issue the Form 1099-INT, even though not required to do so, because it encourages taxpayers to report the interest income. Perhaps, he surmises, the lack of the Form 1099 in Megibow caused the taxpayer not to report the interest income. Mr. Brower also suggests that “based on my 20+ years of dealing with the public in preparing tax returns, I’d say that a good segment of the population of this country honestly believes that income is taxable only if it gets reported to the IRS on a 1099, W-2 or other information return.” I agree. More than one student in my basic federal income tax over the past 20+ years has commented, not in these exact words, “If the IRS doesn’t know about it, is it really income that needs to be reported?”

In my reply to Mr. Brower, I said:
Thank you for your analysis. I agree with you. The lack of a requirement combined with the sending of Forms 1099 raised the same question for me. I think your answer makes sense. What continues to puzzle me is (1) did the IRS issue a Form 1099 to Mr. Megibow? (2) if not, why not? (3) if yes, why did the IRS not contest his assertion that it had not sent one?
When he in turn replied, Mr. Brower shared his guess that we will never know the answer to my first two questions. That’s frustrating. I’m confident I’m not the only one who wants to know. Those questions are at the heart of what inspired the initial post on this issue. As for the third question, his guess is that IRS counsel did not think it was necessary to contest Megibow’s claim that a Form 1099 had not been sent. The interest is includable in gross income whether or not a Form 1099 is sent or received, and thus the IRS can win – as it did – without that evidence. Yet, would it not be sensible to introduce proof that the Form 1099 was sent? Would that not chip away somewhat at the taxpayer’s factual presentation, gross income concepts aside? Could it be that IRS counsel tried to obtain a copy of the Form 1099 sent to Megibow, but was unsuccessful because someone on the Commissioner’s side could not find it? But if it cannot be found, ought one assume it was sent?

How many other taxpayers who receive interest from the IRS fail to receive a Form 1099 and then in turn do what Megibow did? Does anyone know? Yes, the IRS could cross-check its record of interest payments with the copies of the Forms 1099 it has sent. This sort of self-audit would be useful to the IRS, to taxpayers generally, and to the nation. So now my invitation is to someone at the IRS to enlighten the rest of us. We remain curious.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Even Giants Make Tax Mistakes 

A practitioner pointed me in the direction of an H&R Block Press Center Newsroom Story Ideas posting, titled, “Renting Your Vacation Home: What Are the Tax Breaks?” The article points out the sort of expenses that qualify as deductible because of the rental activity, and correctly notes that if the property is rented for fewer than 15 days during the taxable year, those expenses cannot be deducted and the rental income is excluded from gross income. The article proceeds to define what constitutes a personal use day for purposes of determining whether the section 280A limitations apply.

The article provides an example of how to pro-rate rental expenses between personal use days and rental days. In the example, there are 90 days of rental use and 225 days of personal use. The taxpayer in the example has $4,500 in “mortgage insurance” – by which I assume is meant “mortgage interest” because there is no other item tagged as “mortgage interest” and there would not be “mortgage insurance” without “mortgage interest” – along with $3,000 in real property taxes and $17,200 in expenses deductible only on account of rental activity, such as cleaning, insurance, repairs, utilities, and depreciation. According to the example, the taxpayers are permitted to deduct 90/225 of this amount.

There are two errors in this example. The first is the use of a fraction 90/225. The total days of use equal 315 (90 + 225). Thus, the rental portion is 90/315, not 90/225. The second is the lumping together of the deductions allowable in any event (mortgage interest and real property taxes) and the deductions allowable only on account of the rental use. This approach is the position taken by the IRS, but it is a position rejected by taxpayers and by the courts.

Understanding the second error requires a bit of background and an exercise in statutory interpretation. Section 280A(e) provides as follows:
(e) Expenses Attributable to Rental.--
(1) In general.--In any case where a taxpayer who is an individual or an electing small business corporation uses a dwelling unit for personal purposes on any day during the taxable year (whether or not he is treated under this section as using such unit as a residence), the amount deductible under this chapter with respect to expenses attributable to the rental of the unit (or portion thereof) for the taxable year shall not exceed an amount which bears the same relationship to such expenses as the number of days during each year that the unit (or portion thereof) is rented at a fair rental bears to the total number of days during such year that the unit (or portion thereof) is used.

(2) Exception for deductions otherwise allowable.--This subsection shall not apply with respect to deductions which would be allowable under this chapter for the taxable year whether or not such unit (or portion thereof) was rented.
Thus, it is appropriate in the example to multiply $17,200 by the rental use fraction (90/315, not 90/225). However, the mortgage interest and real property taxes are not subject to the section 280A(e) fraction. Instead, when computing the limitation on the total deductions attributable to the rental activity, as provided in section 280A(c)(5), the taxpayer must reduce rental gross income by “the deductions allocable to such use which are allowable under this chapter for the taxable year whether or not such unit (or portion thereof) was so used.” Translated, the means the reduction equals “the mortgage interest and real property taxes allocable to the rental use” because those deductions are allowable whether or not the property is used as rental property. Thus, the question is, “What is the meaning of ‘allocable to such use’?” The IRS takes the position that the allocation is computed using the rental use fraction, and in the case of the example, by using 90/315. Thirty years ago, a taxpayer took the position that the appropriate fraction was 90/365, arguing that a portion of the interest and taxes relate to each day in the year, and pointing out that if Congress wanted to use the section 280A(e) fraction it would have used the section 280A(e) language in section 280(c)(5), something it did not do.

The taxpayer, in Bolton v. Comr., 77 T.C. 104 (1981), prevailed. The IRS appealed to the Ninth Circuit. It lost. See Bolton v. Comr., 694 F.2d 556 (9th Cir. 1982), aff’g 77 T.C. 104 (1981). In the many cases that have since arisen dealing with this issue, the taxpayers have prevailed, including a decision in the Tenth Circuit that followed the Ninth Circuit reasoning. Yet the IRS persists, perhaps hoping that another appellate court will decide in its favor, leading to a decision by the Supreme Court to resolve the dispute. Unfortunately, the IRS position is flat-out wrong, it has been consistently and uniformly rejected, and it puts taxpayers in the unfortunate position of choosing between an adverse tax outcome or the risk and cost of an IRS audit and litigation.

For a commercial tax return preparer to provide an example that makes no mention of the Bolton case or its progeny is appalling. How many taxpayers will end up paying more in taxes than current law requires? I’m told by the practitioner who alerted me to this web page that the same article appeared a year ago, the practitioner called and explained the errors, and the page was taken down. Now it has reappeared. The practitioner noted that another phone call this year is very unlikely.

Teaching section 280A in the shadow of Bolton and the IRS refusal to concede makes the basic tax course even more challenging, for me and for students, than it otherwise needs to be. The only silver lining in the cloud is that it provides an opportunity to help students think about the advice they would give to a client or tax return preparer who faces the issue. How should the tax return be filed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using the Bolton approach? What are the benefits of following the IRS approach and ignoring the Bolton line of cases? Someone who relies on the H&R Block Press Center Newsroom Story Ideas posting would not be asking those questions because they are not being asked those questions. They would be living in an artificial tax world in which Bolton and its progeny do not exist. That’s not a good way to practice tax.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Destruction: Natural Disasters and Taxation 

Many months ago, back in March, KVUE in Austin, Texas, ran a story that certainly did not get my attention and probably did not get much attention outside of Texas. Hundreds of firefighters, most of them volunteers, gathered in the state capital to honor colleagues who had died in the line of duty and to protest budget cuts that would reduce state funding for fire fighting services from $30 million to $7 million. Already under financial stress, volunteers report using personal funds to pay for equipment, repairs, supplies, and upkeep of fire houses. The executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, representing 21,000 firefighters, said of the impact of these cuts, “ . . . it doesn’t help us out any whatsoever, . . . I think the citizens and the public is going to see that.” These have turned out to be sadly prophetic words.

Fast forward to August. Numerous reports, including this one, bring news of wildfires throughout Texas that have destroyed more than 1,000 homes, including one 48-hour period in which 852 residences were devastated. One need only look at map of Texas wildfires to see the incredible scope of the problem.

Here’s the challenge. It costs money to fight wildfires. Yet the governor of Texas and his political allies, as a price for keeping taxes artificially low, decided to cut firefighting assistance funds by more than 70 percent. Surely, considering that firefighters already were laboring under financial shortfalls, this was not a matter of the typical “we need to cut wasteful spending” excuse for trying to shrink government. Here’s some wisdom for the anti-tax crowd: shrunken and destroyed governments cannot protect citizens from rampaging wildfires.

So what does the governor of Texas and his political allies propose to do? They want money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Apparently it doesn’t matter that the governor of Texas has been very critical of FEMA. Now, according to this report, he claims that this is “not the time to worry about reforming the agency.” Apparently it doesn’t matter that FEMA is running out of money. According to many reports, including this one, FEMA is almost out of money, but House Republicans want any FEMA funding increase to be offset by spending in other areas. Perhaps we should cut salaries and benefits for Congress and its staff.

The governor of Texas is not the only advocate of lower taxes and small government to turn to the federal government to ask for funding. The governor of New Jersey sent a letter to the President asking for federal assistance. The governor of Pennsylvania, another anti-tax zealot, also asked for federal assistance. Neither specified whether that assistance should be funded with tax increases or cuts in spending, and though one should expect that they would prefer the latter, as do their ideological counterparts in Congress, neither one dared to suggest who should bear the burden of those spending cuts in order to assist their states.

As I pointed out recently in Storms, Public Infrastructure, and Taxes, the solution offered by the anti-tax zealots is to cut spending, which means reduced funding for fire departments, police protection, public sewage treatment plants, and other essential services. The anti-tax folks in Texas have provided a wonderful example of what happens when fire fighting funding is cut.

The mind-set of rejecting government, and opposing taxation in order to shrink, and as some anti-tax advocates explain, to eliminate, government, and yet begging for money from government when things get rough, makes me think of another mind-set. This behavior immediately reminds me of the teenager who wants nothing to do with his or her parents until the youngster realizes that the parents are needed for help. Anti-authoritarian suddenly become appreciative of the social benefits of a government using its authority protecting its citizenry when they or those on whom they rely for votes are in need of help. The anti-tax campaign is not so much a simple opposition to taxes as a philosophical ideal, but a desire to eliminate funding for regulation and supervision of business and other activity. That regulation, designed to protect workers and the environment, to give but two examples, prevents people from simply doing whatever they want to do, perhaps in pursuit of money and perhaps in pursuit of fun, without regard to the cost that they impose on other people when they shift the cost of their activity onto others.

The anti-tax crowd is more than anti-tax. That is another reason why I explained, in Storms, Public Infrastructure, and Taxes, that “I shudder in horror at the total inanity and stupidity of the anti-tax pledge.” From the perspective of the well-being of democratic, pluralized, just, and economically balanced society and the governments necessary to protect that lifestyle, destroying the life-blood of freedom by using a self-centered definition of freedom is stupid. Perhaps one of the most outspoken Republican candidates for the presidency is correct. Perhaps, as she claims, all of these natural disasters are a divine message, but not the message she thinks it is. Perhaps they are intended to educate people. Perhaps when the dangers of destroying government is highlighted by actual catastrophe rather than hypothetical scenarios posed by pundits will people wake up to the siren song of the self-centered. Perhaps one lesson is that not only can taxes be too high, they can be too low. A slew of natural disasters is bringing that point home, whether or not someone attaches a theological interpretation to these catastrophes. Taxes that are too low can be as destructive as natural disasters.

Friday, September 09, 2011

More on the IRS and Form 1099-INT 

My Wednesday post, Does the IRS Issue Forms 1099? Should It? brought a response from Mary Lew Kehm, a CPA and PFS (personal financial specialist), who practices a few counties away from here. She reports that she has had clients who received Forms 1099-INT from the Treasury Department. Thus, she concludes either the government is not being consistent, or there was something unusual in Megibow v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2011-211, that the Tax Court did not disclose. I agree. I also think that whichever is the explanation, something is awry and needs attention.

A little more research discloses two interesting tidbits. According to William J. Coffey, Strengthening Treasury Direct:
Treasury Direct issues selected 1099 forms. Interest Form 1099-INT reports discounts on Treasury bills and interest payments on notes and bonds. Proceeds from redemptions of notes and bonds are reported on Form 1099B. The Internal Revenue Service requires Form 1099-OID for reporting an original issue discount on notes and bonds. However, Treasury Direct only issues this form for inflation-indexed notes.
First, the Treasury Department, of which the IRS is a part, does issue Forms 1099, but the issuance comes from a part of the Treasury Department that is not the IRS. Second, this form is issued with respect to some, but not all, discounts on, and redemptions of, Treasury obligations, and thus there is inconsistency in this regard.

Anyone who can enlighten me is invited to do so. What are the requirements? Are they being followed? And if the inconsistency is consistent with the requirements, why are the requirements inconsistent?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Does the IRS Issue Forms 1099? Should It? 

A Tax Court opinion released last week made me stop and ask myself a question. Does the IRS issue Forms 1099?

In Megibow v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2011-211, the Tax Court rejected a taxpayer’s argument that he was not required to include in gross income the interest that the IRS had paid him on overpayments he had made. The conclusion is inescapable. Interest is included in gross income, unless it is tax-exempt, which the IRS payments were not. One of the arguments raised by the taxpayer was that he was not required to include the interest in gross income because the IRS had not issued to him a Form 1099 reporting the interest. The Tax Court pointed out that failure to receive an information return, such as a Form 1099, does not transform gross income into excluded income, citing Vaughn v. Comr., T.C. Memo 1992-317, aff’d without pub. Op., 15 F.3d 1095 (9th Cir. 1993). Apparently the IRS did not contend that it had issued a Form 1099, and that is what made me wonder if the IRS issues those forms.

Unless I am missing something, the IRS is not required to issue a Form 1099. Technically, the Form 1099 is an information return, conveying to the IRS tax-related information about a transaction in which other parties have engaged. The taxpayer receives a copy, but technically the taxpayer, by having engaged in the transaction, already knows the information. The taxpayer’s copy is, in this respect, a convenience. The IRS does not report to itself information concerning a transaction in which it has engaged.

The follow-up question is whether the IRS should issue Forms 1099, not only as a convenience to taxpayers, but also as a reminder to taxpayers that they have gross income in the specified amount. Compliance with respect to interest income reporting would increase. The IRS would spare itself the aggravation and cost of going through what it had to go through in this case. Because many taxpayers react to a Form 1099 with the thought, “I must report this because the IRS knows about it, and if I don’t report it, the IRS spotlight will shine on me,” the benefits of requiring the IRS to issue Forms 1099 – or of the IRS voluntarily choosing to do so – outweigh the costs.

One wonders how many other taxpayers failed to report interest paid by the IRS, how many were tagged by the IRS, and how much it cost to bring them into compliance. Surely those who are escaping taxation by failing to report the interest would not be happy with my suggestion, but anything that increases tax compliance is a step in the right direction. The tax and deficit burdens on those who comply are increased by those who do not comply. Having the IRS issue Forms 1099 would ease that inappropriate shifting of burden.

Monday, September 05, 2011

You Know the Election Cycle Has Started When The Tax Talk Gets Even Dumber 

Taxes certainly get a lot of attention. This is particularly noteworthy when one considers that taxes are not like the matters that usually get lots of attention. Taxes are not celebrities, taxes are not weather crises, taxes are not sporting events or fantasy football. It certainly is amusing, almost, that something almost no one likes gets so much air time.

Jon Huntsman has entered the tax conversation. His plan, outlined here, is quite familiar. His plan “eliminates all deductions and credits in favor of three drastically lower rates of 8%, 14% and 23%.” Surely that cannot be so. Does he plan to eliminate the credit for taxes withheld from a person’s paycheck? Or the credit for making estimated tax payments? Does he plan to eliminate business deductions and impose an income tax on gross profit? Is the standard deduction headed for the dustbin of tax history? Will the deduction for personal and dependency exemptions also get trashed? The problem with this “soundbite” planning is that it would leave a person earning $20,000 with a federal income tax bill of $1,600, a social security tax bill of $1,530, and state and local income, sales, and other taxes of who knows how much. Under current tax law, a person scraping by on that sort of salary – a consequence of all the wonderful jobs created by the Bush tax cuts – would need to cut at least $1,600 from their other spending. Perhaps more, if this person qualified for the earned income tax credit. So, let’s see, the poor person’s taxes go up and the wealthy person’s taxes go down, down even more, as a reward for the superb performance of the economy triggered by the last round of tax cuts for the wealthy.

The Huntsman plan not only nails the poor, and to a lesser extent, the middle class, through its elimination of all deductions and credits, it also crushes those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder by eliminating all taxes on capital gains and dividends. This tax break goes to those who can afford to have capital gains and dividends. Again, it’s not the poor, and it’s not most of the middle class who will throw we-have-even-lower-taxes parties. Note that interest would remain taxable, as that is the type of investment income most predominant among the poor and middle class. Under Huntsman, the federal income tax burden would fall on wage earners. Happy Labor Day.

Huntsman’s rationale for not taxing capital gains and dividends is seriously flawed. According to Huntsman (or, more likely, the people who created “his” plan and financing its hype), “Because dollars invested had to first be earned, they have already been subject to the income tax. Taxing these same dollars again when capital gains are realized serves to deter productive and much-needed investment in our economy.” Testing this assertion with an example demonstrates why Huntsman or those hyping this plan don’t understand federal income taxes. Taxpayer T invest $1,000,000 in Z Corporation stock. Things go well, and eventually T sells the stock for $3,000,000. Current law taxes T on $2,000,000, not $3,000,00, and it already taxes T at a rate lower than the rate imposed on hard-working wage earners doing more than sitting back and watching stock price reports. Huntsman’s argument for not taxing capital gains makes sense in terms of not taxing the $1,000,000 that T “gets back” when T sells the stock, but current law doesn’t tax that $1,000,000. It’s called basis. On the other hand, the $2,000,000 of capital gain has not been taxed and thus taxing it at this point is not taxing “dollars [that] have already been subject to the income tax.” This is far from the most difficult and complicated aspects of federal income taxation. Just about every student in basic federal income tax courses learns this and understands this. Huntsman and his team – who perhaps never saw an income tax course – are the sort of people who require the use of “just about” as a limiting modifier on the word “every.” What is more likely is that Huntsman and his backers know quite well the truth, that the $2,000,000 has not previously been taxed, but are trying to dupe the American public into thinking that cutting taxes on capital gains is good for America. It’s good, but not for America. It’s good for the wealthy who are bankrolling Huntsman and the other politicians who parade out the same tax misinformation. If all Americans were required to learn tax in high school, as I have often proposed, it would be much more difficult for those selling this tax deception to find people willing to jump on the lie train. Is it any wonder that the same “tax only wages” crowd seeks to cut funding for education? An educated electorate is the enemy of the manipulators. And the manipulators know that.

If this nonsense about taxes is any indicator, we’re in for a long, lie-filled election season. At least it will give me plenty of topics for this blog.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Employee or Independent Contractor? For Taxes, It Matters 

Whether a person who is performing services ends up characterized as an employee or as an independent contractor affects a variety of tax issues. For example, the payor’s withholding responsibilities differ, employees being subject to withholding but most independent contractors not being subject to withholding. As another example, if the person is an independent contractor, the person is subject to self-employment taxes barring the application of an exception, whereas the person’s status as an employee means that the social security and Medicare tax responsibility is split between the employee and the employer. A very recent case indicates yet another significance, namely, whether deductible expenses incurred in the performance of the services are deductible in computing adjusted gross income, on Schedule C, or are deductible as employee business expenses, on Schedule A, subject to the 2-percent-of-adjusted-gross-income floor. This recent case caught my eye because the taxpayer was performing services as an adjunct professor.

In Schramm v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2011-212 (30 August 2011), the Tax Court held that the taxpayer was an employee and not an independent contractor. The court analyzed eight factors in reaching its conclusion. The facts supporting employee classification overwhelmed those supporting independent contractor classification.

Degree of Control: Supporting employee classification: university specified textbook taxpayer was required to use, university determined the topics to be covered, university set the length of the course, university managed enrollment of students, university provided web site used for online portion of courses, university imposed employment policies, such as sexual harassment, drug use, and conflicts of interest, on taxpayer, university treated taxpayer as employee. Supporting independent contractor classification: taxpayer followed independent approach in teaching classes.

Investment in Facilities: Supporting employee classification: university financed staff for recruiting, registering, and keeping records with respect to students. Supporting independent contractor classification: taxpayer maintained home office for teaching purposes, purchased office supplies, paid for an internet connection and computer.

Opportunity for Profit or Loss: Supporting employee classification: taxpayer’s pay based on number of classes taught, with no opportunity to change it. Supporting independent contractor classification: none.

Right to Discharge: Supporting employee classification: despite lack of evidence, it appeared university could terminate taxpayer’s services at any time, university could decline to pay taxpayer to teach additional courses. Supporting independent contractor classification: none.

Work is Part of Principal’s Regular Business: Supporting employee classification: university’s regular business is education of students and evaluation of their work, for which taxpayer was hired to do. Supporting independent contractor classification: none.

Permanency of Relationship: Supporting employee classification: taxpayer had long-term, consistent contractual relationship with university. Supporting independent contractor classification: none.

Relationship the Parties Thought They Created: Supporting employee classification: university and taxpayer acted as though relationship was employment, university withheld taxes, issued a Form W-2 to taxpayer, and did not check the statutory employee box on that form, university informed taxpayer it had classified taxpayer as employee. Supporting independent contractor classification: none.

Provision of Employee Benefits: Supporting employee classification: none. Supporting independent contractor classification: despite lack of evidence, university did not offer taxpayer or other adjunct faculty the types of benefits offered to other categories of workers.

The taxpayer’s situation in Schramm is very similar to that of adjunct faculty generally. It certainly is very similar to the manner in which my Law School treats adjuncts. The major difference is that adjuncts are permitted to select textbooks rather than being told what textbook to use, though they do receive advice and recommendations on that point. It is possible that some of our adjunct faculty do not maintain home offices for their teaching activities, but I’ve never asked and I don’t think anyone has ever asked. Newly-hired adjunct faculty, of course, lack the permanency of relationship that existed in Schramm, though that factor alone will not change the outcome. Next time I speak with one of our adjuncts, I need to remember to ask if they receive a Form W-2 or a Form 1099. Strange that I’ve never had this conversation, but I’ve never been involved in the payroll side of things. Perhaps I’ll also ask if they have any deductible expenses related to their teaching, because the school does make available to adjuncts computers and similar equipment. My guess is that, like me, they do have computers used for teaching and other business purposes, and pay for an internet connection through which they connect to the on-line classrooms and exchange emails with students, other faculty, and law school administration.

I know I will get a response even before I see any of our adjuncts. Why? Because some of them read MauledAgain.

Addendum: As expected, I've heard from our adjuncts. They are treated as employees and receive Forms W-2. It has been this way for about five years. Previously, they had been the recipients of Forms 1099.

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