Monday, February 29, 2016
It seems ridiculous that a former Presidential candidate whose tax returns highlighted the inequity of the federal income tax system and its enablement of wealth and income inequality would be criticizing another candidate for not “paying the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay.” Did Romney pay the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay?
There are others who are making the same call for tax return release, and many of them pay taxes at effective rates higher than those paid by the wealthy. Thus, the fact Romney’s focus on the issue gets the headline ought not detract from the basic question. Should candidates – for any office, not just for the Presidency – be required to release their tax returns? Those in favor of such a requirement argue that voters should have an opportunity to “see whether there are any issues, noting they will give voters a sense of whether the candidates have been telling the truth about themselves.” If determining whether candidates have been telling the truth, about themselves or anyone or anything else, it’s not just tax returns that provide the necessary information. Would it not be helpful to see the candidates’ emails? Transcripts of their meetings with campaign funding donors and with lobbyists? Recordings of their telephone calls with officials and donors? If, as Romney and others claim, voters need the truth before selecting a nominee or deciding which candidate gets elected, then we need the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Tax returns would be a good start.
So long as tax return release is not required, but happens only on account of political pressure, the question of whether a particular candidate should release his or her returns distracts voters from the real issues. So long as candidates, former candidates, and others speculate about what might or might be on another candidate’s returns – and it is nothing more than speculation – time and attention will be wasted on phantom disputes rather than being devoted to figuring out why the nation is in such an economic, social, and political mess and what needs to be done to clean it up.
Those who argue that mandating tax return release by political candidates will discourage qualified individuals from running for office apparently do not agree that the current practice of not mandating tax return release has not exactly brought us a top-of-the-line outstanding array of candidates. Perhaps the nation would be better off with candidates whose tax returns are boring. And perhaps the nation would be even better off with candidates who not only offer boring tax returns but emails and telephone calls free of influence from moneyed interests and puppet-master donors.
So should candidates be required to release tax returns? Yes, along with everything else that permits voters to see the truth rather than the hype and twisted nonsense that is so freely available.
Friday, February 26, 2016
My reader, who, like some of us, often has “tax on the brain,” quickly saw tax issues, and sent some to me. The questions are simple. It arises from thinking, “Suppose the person living in the tree house had a home office? Or rented it out?” The reader asked, “Can a tree house qualify under the Section 280A rules? Can a tree house be depreciated?” Though there’s no direct authority, careful reading of the applicable statute provides an answer.
The section 280A rules apply to dwelling units. Section 280A(f)(1)(A) provides that “The term ‘dwelling unit’ includes a house, apartment, condominium, mobile home, boat, or similar property, and all structures or other property appurtenant to such dwelling unit.” If a house boat is a house, a tree house is a house. It does not matter whether the house is on the water, on the ground, on wheels, or in a tree. To the extent the requirements for depreciation are satisfied, the cost of the tree house is depreciable, no less than the cost of a house boat or mobile home used for a trade or business or in a for-profit activity.
Proposed Treasury Regulation section 1.280A-1 (c)(1) provides that a dwelling unit includes a "house, apartment, condominium, mobile home, boat, or similar property, which provides basic living accommodations such as sleeping space, toilet and cooking facilities." From the facts discerned from the article, if the taxpayer used a portion of that particular tree house as a home office, for example, it would be subject to section 280A. That’s not to say all tree houses would be so treated, because most tree houses do not have running water, cooking facilities, and the other features of a dwelling unit.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
In Fighting Over Pie or Baking Pie?, I described the practice of states persuading companies to relocate from other states through the use of tax breaks was, “from a national perspective, nothing more than a zero sum game.” I added, “States fight over pieces of the private sector by using tax dollars to increase the size of the economic pie that they can grab, while the small business entrepreneurs who actually bake pie struggle because they cannot afford to put huge campaign contributions in the pockets of the politicians using tax dollars to enhance their power.” I predicted, “If state governors and legislators continue down this path, eventually there won’t be any pie for them to fight over.”
In Another Sales Tax Exemption Taking Off as the Economy Continues to Sink, I criticized the developing pattern of states enacting sales tax exemption exemptions intended to lure businesses away from the state, which in turn encouraged enactment of similar exemptions as a revenue defense, which then triggered escalation of exemptions by the other states, in an accelerating trend of sales tax erosion. I concluded my commentary by pointing out the dangers of this pattern of legislative behavior: “Rather than generating new business, states are intent on stealing from each other. Fought with tax policy rather than guns, this modern civil war among the states shows the fundamental flaws of federalism. Constant poaching does nothing beneficial for the national economy.”
There were those who considered my description of this pattern as a "civil war," offering the usual disapproving evaluation of my characterizations, as excessively exaggerated. But now comes more evidence that, in fact, the states indeed are engaging in economic warfare. According to this report, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, advocating retention of the various tax breaks enacted by the state, has told a legislative committee, "There's an economic war going on out there." Yes, those were the words: economic war. Not dispute. Not argument. Not disagreement. Not conflict. War. On the other side, opponents of the tax breaks claim that the ultimate cost of those economic weapons is paid with public workers’ pension benefits. Some opponents claim that the cost also is being borne by those who use deteriorating infrastructure and those who have lost mental health care services.
In so many ways, this fight over the national economic pie resembles a shooting war, and is just as deadly in the long run. War often is fought over limited resources, and that is in part what is happening as states grab jobs from each other. War often is funded, not by those who benefit from the war, but from those who are dragged involuntarily into its turmoil, often losing financially as well as psychically. What difference is there, in terms of practical effect, between people suffering from the ravages of war and suffering from the loss of promised retirement benefits? What difference is there, in terms of practical effect, between people suffering from the consequences of bombed-out roads and bridges and the consequences of roads and bridges falling apart because of underfunded and unfunded maintenance?
And when the war ends, albeit usually for just some relatively short period of time, what’s the outcome? A few wealthier people and companies, hordes of dead and impoverished individuals, and no permanent solution to whatever it is that triggered the conflict. Until and unless the underlying causes of economic inequilibrium that has hurled the states into this fight for economic survival, having been identified, are corrected, the pattern will continue, will accelerate, and will intensify. In the long run, no one wins a war, whether it is fought with guns or tax and economic policies. In the long run, all that might remain is rubble.
Monday, February 22, 2016
A recent case, Barbato v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2016-23, drives this point home. The taxpayer worked for the United States Postal Service (USPS) as a letter carrier. In 1987, she was injured in a vehicle accident while on the job. Because of the ensuing physical limitations from the injuries, the USPS reassigned the taxpayer, with her consent, from carrying mail to working in the post office staffing the counter and doing various administrative tasks. When a new manager was appointed, the taxpayer was reassigned to carrying mail, which caused her to suffer more pain. The manager, and other employees, scrutinized her work more closely than that of other employees, retaliating because of her request for medical accommodations, and creating a hostile work environment. This caused the taxpayer to experience severe stress and emotional difficulties.
The taxpayer filed a complaint against the USPS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC issued a decision, specifying that the taxpayer was “entitled to non-pecuniary damages in the amount of $70,000, for the emotional distress which . . . [she] established was proximately caused by the discrimination” of USPS employees. The EEOC also specifically determined that the taxpayer’s physical pain was not caused by the discriminatory actions of the USPS, explaining that “It is also clear that . . . [the taxpayer] experienced significant physical distress and pain as the result of actions which have not been found here to be discriminatory, and that . . . [her] conditions were exacerbated by non-discriminatory actions which occurred during the same time period that the discriminatory actions were also taking place.” The EEOC noted that “[h]ad all of the physical and emotional distress experienced by . . . [the taxpayer] been caused by . . . discriminatory actions, . . . [she] would have been entitled to $100,000 in non-pecuniary compensatory damages.”
The taxpayer and her husband filed a joint return and excluded the $70,000 from gross income. The taxpayer explained that she considered the award not taxable because her emotional distress was related to her previous physical injury. The IRS examined the return, and issued a notice of deficiency increasing the gross income by $70,000, and adding a substantial understatement penalty. The Tax Court upheld the deficiency, holding that damages received for emotional distress are not excluded from gross income under section 104. However, without explanation, the Tax Court did not sustain the substantial understatement penalty.
These sorts of cases, even though appearing to be crystal clear, do pose challenges for taxpayers. In many instances, the determination of the adjudicator awarding damages does not clearly delineate the split between damages for physical injuries and damages for emotional distress. The distinction came into the tax law at a time when science did not understand as deeply as it does now that emotional distress is caused by biological and chemical changes in the brain. If chemical damage to a person’s skin is a physical injury, why is chemical damage to a person’s brain not a physical injury? It is time for the distinction to be eliminated, but until and unless that happens, taxpayers are caught by it and must file their returns in compliance with what section 104 provides.
Friday, February 19, 2016
The new governor of Louisiana has proposed a variety of tax increases. Among the proposals are increases in the state sales tax, increases in the tobacco tax, and increases in the alcohol tax. Members of the legislature have reacted as one might expect, some supporting the idea of raising taxes, and others determined to oppose tax increases and wield the spending-cut axe. Some legislators and some citizens have provided different responses depending on the tax. As the president of the Louisiana Senate put it, “The sales tax seems to be the one causing the most grief. The sin taxes have more support.”
So why would lawmakers and taxpayers be less opposed to sin tax increases than sales tax increases? The answer, I think, is easy. People tend to examine tax proposals by asking, “How does this affect me?” Almost everyone would look at a sales tax increase proposal as having a negative effect on their finances, at least in the short-term. Many people look at tobacco and alcohol taxes and conclude that because they do not purchase, or purchase relatively little, tobacco or alcohol products, increases in those taxes are no big deal.
There are risks in basing tax policy decisions on how one perceives the effect of changes on one’s particular position at a particular time. What happens when an activity not currently considered a “sin” worthy of taxation becomes the target of tax increase proposals? Societal and cultural norms change. There was a time when tobacco use and alcohol use were pervasive, and those who did not drink or smoke were somewhat out of the mainstream. What mainstream activities of the past several decades will be the basis of “sin taxes” a decade or two from now?
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
This claim, which has been made by the industry for several years, is nothing more than a test-the-waters threat. If it works, excellent. If it doesn’t, so be it. The risk is that those to whom the threat is delivered, take it seriously.
Why do I not take it seriously? Pennsylvania does not have a shale severance tax. Ohio and West Virginia do. Why would the shale gas industry, opposed to a shale severance tax, implement its opposition by fleeing to a state with such a tax? The reasoning presented by the writer suggests that the industry should be abandoning Ohio and West Virginia, and every other state, considering Pennsylvania is the outlier in terms of the severance tax, as it flees from taxation to a paradise of no or little taxation. But that is not what has been happening.
Consider the child who threatens to run away from home because she dislikes her parents’ imposition of a 9 p.m. curfew. If the child threatens to move in with a friend whose parents impose no curfew and let their children have free run of things, the threat might have some teeth, aside from the question of whether the other parents would open their home with welcoming arms. But if the child threatens to move in with a friend whose parents impose a 9 p.m. curfew, or, worse, an 8:30 p.m. curfew, the threat needs to be treated as the bluster that it is.
There is little or no downside to making threats in order to obtain something. The worst is a loss of credibility, but when credibility does not exist or is not valued, there’s not much to lose. It’s understandable that the industry would take the “there’s no harm in asking” or “no harm in threatening” approach. What’s not understandable is that people are cowed by the threat. The current downturn in oil and gas prices won’t last forever, and so long as there is a profit after taxes, the yet-to-be-extracted oil and gas will be an economic opportunity for someone. If the industry is willing to do business in states with severance taxes, as it currently is doing, it will be willing to do business in Pennsylvania even if it has a severance tax, and especially if that tax is lower than what is imposed by other states.
Monday, February 15, 2016
The primary issue was whether the taxpayer qualified for the section 911 exclusion from gross income for compensation earned abroad, but because the exclusion does not apply to employees of the United States or its agencies it was necessary to decide if the taxpayer, who was paid by a United States agency, was an employee of that agency.
On his 2007 and 2008 federal income tax returns, the taxpayer claimed the section 911 exclusion. The taxpayer’s position was that he was not an employee of the United States or any of its agencies. The IRS audited the taxpayer’s returns for those years. The IRS auditor informed the taxpayer that he was entitled to the section 911 exclusion for those years.
The taxpayer also claimed the section 911 exclusion on his federal income tax returns for 2009 through 2011. The IRS audited those returns, concluded that the taxpayer was an employee of a United States agency, and issued a notice of deficiency. The IRS claimed not only the tax liability arising from the denial of the exclusion, but also accuracy-related penalties.
The Tax Court held that the taxpayer was an employee as the IRS claimed, and rejected the taxpayer’s claim that he was an independent contractor. The fact that an IRS auditor told the taxpayer otherwise did not bar the IRS from taking its position. This aspect of the case is not news, as there are dozens if not hundreds of cases in which taxpayers following incorrect advice from IRS employees nonetheless were required to comply with the correct analysis of the tax law.
But when it came to the penalties, the Tax Court concluded that the taxpayer had acted with reasonable cause and in good faith. The penalties do not apply to a taxpayer who so acts. The Tax Court noted that the taxpayer did not have a background in accounting, finance, or tax. Under those circumstances, it was reasonable for the taxpayer to conclude that he was not an employee. The issue facing the taxpayer, namely, whether he was an employee or independent contractor, is an issue that confounds tax practitioners and judges, because its resolution is fact intensive and often rests on very close factual distinctions.
The question of how to deal with incorrect advice from IRS employees has befuddled the tax practice community for decades. On the one hand, it seems unfair to disregard the effects of that advice on the taxpayer’s preparation of a return. On the other hand, it seems unfair to all other taxpayers to permit someone to escape tax liability because an IRS employee is confused about, or ignorant of, the tax law. One solution, stopping IRS employees from giving advice, not only is counter-productive, but would not be a solution in situations such as this one, where the advice came during an audit. Another solution, having a supervisor review the advice would increase costs at a time when the IRS is under Congressional siege. Yet another solution, simplifying the tax law, though possibly reducing the number of times incorrect advice is given, would not solve the problem because sometimes the incorrect advice is given with respect to rather basic tax law questions.
In all fairness, dealing with incorrect advice about the tax law is not a unique problem. Similar issues arise with respect to every other area of the law, such a zoning, traffic regulation, environmental impacts, business licensing, and wills. The bad advice comes from every direction, not just government employees dealing with the issues, but from neighbors, relatives, friends, journalists, commentators, and even professionals in the relevant field. Perhaps better education, not only about the rules but about ways in which people can educate themselves about ever-changing rules, offers the best long-term solution. Perhaps teaching people to think like lawyers ought to begin in elementary school and not 20-some years into one’s education.
Friday, February 12, 2016
In The Fallacy of “Job Creating” Tax Breaks, Yet Again, I pointed out that a report by KPMG and the Tax Foundation matched my previous conclusions: “But when it comes down to it, the tax breaks usually just move firms around a region and, on net, rarely yield much.” I noted that what they did yield was “quite a bit for the corporate owners who are already drowning in cash and profits.”
Now comes yet another report demonstrating that these tax breaks are built on the false promises of job creation. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report about a week ago, the title of which offers a clue as to its conclusions: State Job Creation Strategies Often Off Base. The report concluded that “[t]he vast majority of jobs are created by businesses that start up or are already present in a state – not by the relocation or branching into a state by out-of-state firms,” and that “[d]uring periods of healthy economic growth, startups and young, fast-growing companies are responsible for most new jobs, that “businesses older than one year in aggregate lost jobs relative to their prior-year employment levels.”
The report also shared the conclusion of another study, that “only 5% of entrepreneurs cited low tax rates as a factor in deciding where to launch their company.” The report concluded that income tax cuts for businesses do little to generate job growth. The report noted that attempts to bring out-of-state companies into a state end up as “zero-sum attempts.” In other words, tossing out tax breaks based on the promise of more and new jobs when in fact the companies receiving the tax breaks do nothing more than move existing jobs amounts to yet another false promise from the devotees of supply-side economics.
The report makes sense, and its conclusions are not surprising. At a time when the focus should be on national economic growth, the constant luring of a company from one state to another is nothing more than economic civil war. The economic waste generated by lobbying activities focused on reshuffling production within the nation hampers the effort to maintain national economic strength on the global stage. As the report recommends, states should encourage the launching of new businesses and help existing businesses fulfill their potential.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Monday, February 08, 2016
All sorts of thoughts passed through my brain. Was the failure caused by a power spike? If so, were surge protection devices in place? If not, why not? If yes, why did they fail? Were they outdated? Worn out? Improperly maintained?
Was the failure caused by a loss of power? If so, did backup generators kick in? If not, why not? Are there backup generators? Are they maintained properly? Are they outdated?
And once the hardware went down, why did the system not shift to backup facilities? Are there backup facilities? Are they maintained properly? Are they up-to-date?
The IRS explained that taxpayers should continue to file returns electronically and that the e-file providers will hold the returns until the IRS is ready to accept them. The IRS also explained that some of its web site services, such as “Where’s My Refund” are not operating even though other parts of its web site are up and running. The IRS expects no “major refund disruptions.” Of course, that depends on getting the hardware failure fixed, identifying the cause, and putting in place safeguards to prevent it from happening again.
Fixing the problem and preventing its recurrence requires money. Perhaps the antiquated status of IRS technology has something to do with this glitch. Imagine the outcry from Congress if a similar failure occurred with Defense Department computers. What Congress appears not to understand is that without a properly functioning IRS, including its technology system, there cannot be a properly functioning Defense Department or any other federal government agency or department, and many state and local government units.
Though some Americans might rejoice at the thought of the IRS being unable to function, the joy will turn to anger when they discover it means refunds aren’t being processed.
And again I ask, backups, anyone?
Friday, February 05, 2016
“How to Get the Biggest Tax Refund This Year”
Wouldn’t it be fun to be the taxpayer with the biggest refund this year? Could that happen? What if there is someone out there who paid estimated taxes of, say, $500,000, and ended up overpaying by $300,000, and asked for a refund? How could I possible tweak my tax return to get a $300,000 refund? It isn’t going to happen. And it isn’t going to happen for at least 99 percent of taxpayers.
But perhaps the reference isn’t to the biggest refund this year of all taxpayers, but to the taxpayer receiving a refund this year that is the biggest the taxpayer has ever received. But can that happen? Yes. Is it likely to happen? No.
So I read the article. It contains a list of suggestions about one’s tax return, all of which are common knowledge to tax return preparers, and most of which are familiar to many taxpayers. A taxpayer who might overlook one or another of the tips that are provided but who is made aware of the deduction or other suggestion might end up with a bigger refund than would otherwise be received. Or perhaps with a smaller tax-due payment to be remitted to the U.S. Treasury. The article deserves a headline that reads, “How to Get a Bigger Tax Refund This Year” but that won’t get quite the attention that a headline with “Biggest” in it will bring.
Wednesday, February 03, 2016
First things first.
Only an individual can be a dependent, either as a qualifying child or as a qualifying relative. Is a clone an individual? There is no legal authority on the question, because there has been no need to answer the question. If a clone is an individual, then under section 7701(a)(1), the clone would be a “person” for purposes of the federal tax law. But that doesn’t answer the question. Nor does it answer other questions that arise. For example, section 152(b)(3)(A) generally requires that a dependent be a citizen or national of the United States. Is a clone a citizen? Are clones “born”? As another example, consider the requirement that a qualifying child must meet the section 152(c)(2) relationship test. Is a clone a child, descendant of a child, a brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or descendant of such a relative? The relationship test in section 152(d)(2) that must be met by a qualifying relative poses similar questions, adding to the list of possible relationships. Perhaps the easiest one to work out is the section 152(d)(2)(H) test of having the same principal place of abode, for that determination can be made in the affirmative if the clone is an individual. Yet even that provision raises another, surely bizarre, question. A spouse, by definition, cannot fall within section 152(d)(2)(H). If a person’s clone is not defined as bearing one of the specified relationships, then what is to stop a person from marrying his or her clone? Granted, that question takes us beyond tax law but tax analysis is not confined to the tax law.
One of my first thoughts on reading the reader’s email was, “Hmm. This is like the “what is the value of a law review article on the tax consequences of time travel?” example I use in class to warn students about drifting from the practical into the theoretical when doing so is inappropriate. Then I realized, having the ability to generate a clone is not the remote science-fiction notion that time travel prevents, and of course, some things that were dreams and imaginations in the science fiction books my brother let me read when I was eight and nine years old, to the chagrin of my parents, are today’s technology. And, of course, some aren’t. Yet.
The challenge is the tendency of legislatures to dilly-dally when it comes to being prepared for technological and societal advances. Some legislatures struggle just to do their current to-do list. History tells us that people and courts struggled with the legal and tax consequences of surrogate motherhood, email, radio, and a long list of other developments. I am confident that human clones will appear before legislatures take any steps to specify the legal and tax consequences.
So, my answer to my reader simply is, “I don’t know. I can guess, and you can guess, and it’s fun to share our guesses. But in the end, it’s that classic response, ‘It depends.’ Until then, think about it from time to time.”
Monday, February 01, 2016
Dingfelder, in a letter to the paper’s editor suggests that the people of Pennsylvania “have the means to effectively pressure our elected officials to get this task done.” He encourages residents of Pennsylvania to stop sending tax payments to Harrisburg and instead to deposit them into an escrow account at their bank. He also suggests notifying the governor, state senator, and state representative that this is being done, and why it is being done.
Dingfelder notes that there are risks in doing this. He is correct. The biggest risk is that it will not work. Most taxes are paid into Harrisburg automatically. Most tax payments are controlled by software. Sales taxes are collected at the point of sale and transmitted through digital networks. Employer payroll departments use automated systems to issue paychecks or direct deposits, and those systems transfer funds automatically to the state treasury. The amount of taxes that can be held back by residents is rather small, and would be noticed only by Department of Revenue computers that would automatically issue notices and perhaps levies and liens.
On top of this, I am not confident that all, or even most, state residents are unhappy with the state legislature’s failure to pass a budget. It is no surprise that a budget cannot be approved, because different tax and spending policies are represented by the executive and by the majority of the legislature. So long as people keep electing legislators who hold positions opposite to those taken by the executives elected by the voters, stalemate is guaranteed. We have years of experience in Washington to illustrate this point, and it’s no surprise that state legislatures, including Pennsylvania, are similarly afflicted.
Holding back tax payments might be a marvelous, though risky, symbolic gestures. But gestures aren’t the answer. Politics and politicians are replete with gestures. What’s required is education, common sense, and attachment to principles that rise above what currently is stinking up American politics and its electoral system.