Monday, November 26, 2012
Several days ago, in this Huffington Post opinion piece, Norquist offered two “protections available to the American people” to avoid previous experiences of watching legislators rush into adoption of economic or tax programs designed in private and put up for a vote without sufficient time for examination. Norquist suggests that negotiations on dealing with the impending fiscal cliff be aired on C-SPAN and not conducted in back rooms. He also proposes that once an agreement has been reached, it should be reduced to legislative language and then put online for 7 days for all Americans to read.
My first reaction to Norquist’s proposals was a positive one, which is rather surprising considering how adamantly I object to his dogma and tactics. Long before Norquist was pondering taxes, I was bemoaning the back-room approach to politics generally and to tax specifically. And long before Norquist turned his attention to legislative matters, I was also bemoaning the “last minute rush” process that generated legislation with flaws, omissions, and inconsistencies, and that raised more unanswered questions than good legislation ought to present. My students have been listening to these criticisms for all the years that I have guided them through the tax law that has emerged from this inefficient legislative process.
But the more I thought about Norquist’s proposals, I came to see two major concerns. Neither one causes me to object to Norquist’s proposals, but both cause me to look at them more closely.
The first is that the idea of requiring a 7-day period for examination of the legislation presumes that the legislation would be ready in time to permit that examination to take place, and enactment to occur, before the December 31, 2012, fiscal cliff event. The reason for the rush to enactment is that legislatures leave things go until the last minute. Though many people, including students, tend to do this is no excuse for public leaders to emulate bad practice. Instead, they need to learn and apply time management principles. Norquist does not address this underlying cause for the “rush to enact” problem that he seeks to remedy. Perhaps legislatures should be required to begin work on an issue a certain number of days before the deadline and should be prohibited from taking a break or doing anything else until the job has been completed. How that sort of solution can be implemented is not as easy to design as might first appear.
The second is that the idea of moving policy decisions out of the back rooms is not one I would have expected Norquist to make. Six years ago, in Food for Tax Thought?, I commented on a story, about the relationship between lobbyist Jack Abramoff and White House Political Director Ken Mehlman, who by 2006 was serving as chair of the Republican National Committee. One of the conversations in which Abramoff and Karl Rove addressed Abramoff’s efforts to obtain benefits for his clients took place at a "Tax Policy Dinner" hosted at Grover Norquist's home. To this, I reacted by writing, “So, wrapped up in this morass of favors, endorsements, deals, and other shadowy transactions is a thing called a ‘Tax Policy Dinner.’ Hosted, no less, by one of the staunchest opponents of taxation to come along in a long time.” I then added, “It is simply wrong for tax policy to be worked out at a private dinner to which only a select few are invited. When the deal is done before the vote is tabulated, what's the value of the vote?” I am confident that if I had requested this dinner to be broadcast on C-SPAN, Norquist and his cronies would have refused. Now, Norquist criticizes back-room dealing. Does this mean he would open his dinners to public view? Or stop doing public business in private? How does he reconcile his past practices with his most recent proposal? What he says, and how he says it, will be important, if he says anything at all. What he does, and how he does it, will be much more instructive.
Friday, November 23, 2012
On Monday, the Tax Court released an opinion, Cheung v. Comr., T. C. Summary Op. 2012-114, in which it rejected a taxpayer’s argument that the definition of a term found in the Internal Revenue Code should be set aside in favor of a definition from another federal agency. Though it is readily apparent why the taxpayer wanted to take this approach, the Tax Court emphasized that when a term used in the Code is defined in the Code, it is improper to look elsewhere for the definition.
The taxpayer purchased property #1 on October 31, 2003, moved into the house on that property, and lived there until March 31, 2009. On July 26, 2004, the taxpayer married, and on January 18, 2006, his wife moved into the house on property #1, and lived there until March 31, 2009. On March 31, 2009, the taxpayer purchased property #2, and he and his wife moved into the house on that property.
The taxpayer and his wife filed a joint return for 2008, on which they claimed a first-time homebuyer credit. The IRS audited the return and asked for additional information to substantiate the credit. The taxpayer provided the IRS with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development settlement statement showing the taxpayer as the purchaser of the house on property #2 with a settlement date of March 31, 2009. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency that, among other things, disallowed the credit.
The first-time homebuyer credit is not available unless, among other things, the taxpayer is a first-time homebuyer. Section 36(c)(1) defines a first-time homebuyer as “any individual if such individual (and if married, such individual’s spouse) had no present ownership interest in a principal residence during the 3-year period ending on the date of the purchase of the principal residence to which this section applies.” The taxpayer argued that he qualified under that definition, under the definition of first-time homebuyer appearing in statements on the HUD web site for HUD and FHA purposes, and under the definition of first-time homebuyer appearing in an article published in the Home Guides section of the San Francisco Chronicle. The definition appearing in the Chronicle matched the definition appearing on the HUD web site.
The taxpayer argued that section 36(c)(1) requires that only “one of the spouses has no present ownership interest in a principal residence during the three-year period ending on the date of the purchase of the principal residence for which the credit is claimed. Thus, if one spouse is eligible under I.R.C. § 36(c)(1), then both the spouses (the couple) are eligible.” Petitioners claimed that this interpretation was consistent with the definition found on the HUD web site. That definition provides that a first-time homebuyer is [a]n individual who has had no ownership in a principal residence during the 3-year period ending on the date of the purchase of the property. This includes a spouse (if either meets the above test, they are considered first-time homebuyers).”
The IRS argued that because the taxpayer, during the three-year period ending on March 31, 2009, owned property #1, he was not a first-time homebuyer within the meaning of section 36(c)(1). It did not matter, according to the IRS, that the taxpayer’s wife was a first-time homebuyer because she did not have an interest in a principal residence during that three-year period.
The Court held that the definition of first-time homebuyer appearing on the HUD web site is “not controlling for purposes of section 36.” The definition that is controlling is the one found in section 36(c)(1). The Court also held that the taxpayer’s interpretation of the section 36(c)(1) definition as requiring only one spouse to have lacked an ownership interest in a principal residence during the three-year period was incorrect. The Court pointed to the parenthetical language in the definition, which makes it clear that if a married couple purchases a principal residence and files a joint return, both spouses must meet the requirement that no interest in a principal residence be owned during the three-year period. This point had previously been made by the Court in Packard v. Comr., 139 T.C. No. 15 (Nov. 5, 2012).
It is a canon of statutory construction that when a statute uses a term and defines that term, the definition in that statute trumps definitions of that term found elsewhere. Looking to a definition not in the statute is an approach that makes sense only if the term is not defined in the statute. Though that happens more often that it should, it is not the case with the section 36 first-time homebuyer definition. As I tell my students, it’s not enough to read a newspaper description of a law, or to read a summary on a web site. The analysis should begin with the statute.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
Last year, taking a lawyerly approach, I incorporated by reference all the people, events, and things for which I am grateful. I do that again, and I will make that list even longer:
I am thankful the sun comes up every morning and that I’m still around to notice. I am thankful that people rallied to help others during and after the hurricane superstorm. I am thankful that there is a chance intelligent discourse about the nation’s problems might trump the shrill voices of the disaffected extremists on both sides.
I am thankful for family, immediate and extended, of every imaginable degree of relationship. I am thankful for the help I receive as I dabble with family history research.
I am thankful for my friends, near and far, long-time and new. I am thankful for their stories, their attention, their advice, their jokes, and their laughter.
I am thankful for the readers of MauledAgain, including those who send me possible stories. I am thankful for my friends at the gym who also supply me with tax stories. I am thankful for the students who energize the classroom, the readers who take time to look at what I have written, the taxpayers and judges who give me things to discuss.
I am thankful that so many of my eighth grade graduating class found a way to get together in the spring at a “first time in 47 years” reunion. I am thankful that we have continued to gather informally during the intervening months. I am thankful for all that my classmates have accomplished, and for the memories that they safeguarded and then shared.
I am thankful that the members of the church to which I belong stepped up to support in many ways a renovation of the chancel that was much needed and that is now complete. I am thankful for the talents of my friend, the organ builder, who is producing a musical instrument which I am sure I will mention next Thanksgiving.
I am thankful people are reading this. Happy Thanksgiving.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
A look at the New Jersey sales tax law is instructive. Under section 54:32B-3(a), a sales tax is imposed on “receipts from every retail sale of tangible personal property or a specified digital product for permanent use or less than permanent use, and regardless of whether continued payment is required, except as otherwise provided in this act.” I think marijuana is tangible personal property. That means it is time to continue reading. Section 54:32B-3(b) adds additional transactions to the list of taxable items, but none are relevant to the Center’s question. Section 54:32B-3(c) addresses the sale of prepared food and the sale of food and beverages from vending machines. Section 54:32B-3(d) imposes the sales tax on hotel rent, section 54:32B-3(e) addresses admission charges, and section 54:32B-3(f) focuses on telecommunication services. Sections 54:32B-3(f) and (g) have been deleted, section 54:32B-3(h) applies to dues, and section 54:32B-3(i) subjects parking and vehicle storage fees to the tax.
With the general provision appearing to make sales of medical marijuana subject to the New Jersey sales tax, the next step is to ascertain if there are any other provisions that set forth exceptions. Of those that exist, one appears relevant. Section 54:32B-8.1(a) provided exceptions for medical items, including “drugs sold pursuant to a doctor's prescription” and “over-the-counter drugs.” Section 54:32B-8.1(b) defines a drug as “a compound, substance or preparation, and any component of a compound, substance or preparation, other than food and food ingredients, dietary supplements or alcoholic beverages: (1) recognized in the official United States Pharmacopoeia, official Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States, or official National Formulary, and supplement to any of them; or (2) intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease; or (3) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body.” An over-the-counter drug is defined as “a drug that contains a label which identifies the product as a drug, required by 21 CFR 201.66. The label includes: (1) a "Drug Facts" panel or (2) a statement of the "active ingredient" or "active ingredients" with a list of those ingredients contained in the compound, substance or preparation.”
It appears from this explanation from the New Jersey Department of Health that a doctor’s prescription is required, and can be provided by having the physician register with the Department and then creating a patient record for the patient. Though the word “prescription” is not used, the process is the same, namely, an authorization by a licensed and registered physician for a patient to use a regulated product for health purposes.
Does medical marijuana fit within the definition of a drug? It appears so. It is a substance. It is not food, nor is it a legal food ingredient. It is not a dietary supplement. It is not an alcoholic beverage. It is intended for use in the mitigation of disease.
Unless there is some provision tucked away in some obscure place – and there could be, as I am not an expert in New Jersey sales tax law – the conclusion appears to be that medical marijuana is not subject to the New Jersey sales tax. So if the legislator who sponsored the legislation wanted the sales tax to apply, an amendment to the sales tax law would have been in order.
This question is going to pop up in an increasing number of states. Absent the insertion of specific language into a state’s legislation, tax practitioners across the nation will need to analyze existing provisions to construct advice for their clients. As I tell my students, you are in law school not so much to learn what the law is but to learn how to learn what the law is, because both law and the circumstances to which it applies keep changing.
Monday, November 19, 2012
In holding that the payment must be included in gross income, the Tax Court rejected O’Connor’s argument that the payment was excluded under section 104 as a payment received on account of physical illness or physical sickness, and his argument that the payment was excluded under section 102 as a gift. The section 104 argument was rejected because O’Connor did not allege that he suffered physical injury or sickness on account of the gout study, and did not prove a causal link between the payment from Covance and the gout. Because O’Connor did not produce his contract with Covance, the Court was unable to conclude that the payment was for anything other than O’Connor’s participation in the study. The section 102 argument was rejected because O’Connor did not introduce any evidence demonstrating that Covance paid him out of detached and disinterested generosity. That Covance did not consider the payment to be a gift was reinforced by the fact it issued a Form 1099-MISC to O’Connor for the payment.
The result in the case is not surprising. The fact that a taxpayer sought to exclude such a payment is not surprising. What also is not surprising is that cases dealing with the determination of what constitutes gross income will continue to be with us no matter what is done with tax rates, no matter what sort of flat tax or similar arrangement is adopted, no matter the level of simplification applied to tax deductions and credits. Until and unless income taxes are repealed, the question “what is gross income?” will persist, in tax law courses and in tax practice. And if income taxes disappear, the inquiry will shift to questions such as “what is consumption?” or “what is value added?”
Friday, November 16, 2012
A recent Tax Court case, Bond v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2012-313, illustrates the reality of the dangers to which I try to draw my students’ attention. The taxpayer is an attorney, and although according to the court’s opinion he is admitted to practice before the Tax Court, his biography indicates that he does not specialize in tax law. The taxpayer also was president and sole shareholder of two corporations, and served as an adjunct law professor at Albany Law School.
On September 10, 2010, the IRS sent a notice of deficiency to the taxpayer, with six adjustments to the taxpayer’s 2005 and 2006 tax returns. On August 31, 2011, the Tax Court set the case for trial on February 6, 2012. The Court ordered the parties to file pretrial memoranda by January 23, 2012. The IRS did so on January 20, 2012, but the taxpayer did not. In the meantime, on December 23, 2011, the IRS filed a motion to compel the taxpayer to respond to the IRS’s interrogatories and a motion to compel production of documents. Those motions were granted on December 28, 2011, with a requirement that the taxpayer respond by January 13, 2012, and a requirement that if the taxpayer did not respond, he must file a response by January 13, 2012, stating adequate reasons for the failure to respond. The taxpayer did nothing. The IRS, on January 20, 2012, filed a motion to impose sanctions. When the case was called for trial on February 6, 2012, the taxpayer had still not complied. At trial, the taxpayer moved for a continuance, which was denied. The case was set for trial on February 8, 2012, and the taxpayer promised to file the pretrial memorandum “in the next day or two” and to exchange documents with the IRS. When the case was recalled for trial on February 8, 2012, the taxpayer informed the court that he was “not ready for trial,” had not provided the IRS with the documents on which he intended to rely, and had no complied with the IRS’s request for information. The taxpayer explained that he “had obligations in my law practice and with clients,” and admitted he had not reviewed his own exhibits. The taxpayer again moved for a continuance, claiming that he “really have not had an opportunity to discuss . . .” at which point the Court interrupted him and said, “Well, that’s not true. You had the opportunity. You just didn’t take advantage of it.” Despite that reaction, the court continued the case, and rescheduled trial for April 23, 2012. During the trial, the taxpayer’s “testimony was in large part a criticism of the Internal Revenue Service” and on cross-examination his testimony “indicated that many of his claimed deductions appeared to be founded on frivolous legal reasoning.” At the end of the trial, the court ordered the filing of simultaneous opening briefs by July 9, 2012. On July 9, 2012, the IRS filed its brief. The taxpayer did not file a brief. On August 17, 2012, the court ordered that the record in the case be closed. On August 31, 2012, the taxpayer moved to reopen proceedings so that he could file a reply brief, which the court denied on September 4, 2012.
The taxpayer claimed that he did not file a brief because he had not received the IRS’s brief. The court rejected the excuse as making “no sense.” In light of the taxpayer’s previous failures to comply with deadlines, the court applied Rule 123(b) and held that the petitioner failed to properly prosecute his case and was in default. Accordingly, the court sustained the IRS’s determinations.
When the court then turned to the IRS’s determination that the taxpayer was liable for the accuracy-related penalty, it held that the IRS met its burden of proof. The court explained that the taxpayer had not adequately substantiated the deductions disallowed by the IRS, failed to present any legal authority for the deductions disallowed disallowed by the IRS, and had claimed deductions obviously disallowed by the statute. As an example of an unsubstantiated deduction, the court noted that although the taxpayer claimed deductions for self-employed health insurance expenses, he did not prove that he had health insurance coverage or that he paid for health insurance. As an example of deductions contrary to law, the court noted that the taxpayer claimed as deductions domestic relations litigation expenses paid in previous years, improperly characterized by the taxpayer as ordinary and necessary business expenses. As another example, the court noted that the taxpayer had claimed contributions to political campaigns as charitable contribution deductions, in violation of section 162(e)(1)(B).
Law students and lawyers can learn several things from examining this case, rather than going through the experience themselves. As unfortunate the outcome for Mr. Bond, the consequences provide lessons for others who perhaps can be spared a similar fate by paying attention.
First, missing deadlines, particularly those set by a court, and especially those set by a court that out of mercy or kindness provided continuances that it was not required to provide, is self-destructive. Sometimes a missed deadline cannot be avoided, such as the proverbial attorney hit by a truck while crossing the street on her way to the courthouse. Usually, though, some avenue exists to deal with deadlines. There are times when it makes sense to get help, especially if an attorney’s success generates so much work that the attorney is swamped with tasks and deadlines.
Second, claiming deductions for expenses clearly not allowable as deductions can bring nothing but aggravation in the long run. The opinion does not disclose who prepared the returns. If it was someone other than the taxpayer, the preparer did not do him any favors. If the taxpayer prepared the returns, the question is whether the taxpayer did so in knowing violation of the tax law, or in mistaken understanding of the tax law. The former is beyond unfortunate, and the latter is another lesson in why it sometimes makes sense to get help with a task.
Third, there are times when it is counter-productive for a person to serve as his or her own attorney, even if the person is an attorney. This is particularly true when venturing into areas of law with which the person has insufficient familiarity or expertise. The demands of handling a case in the Tax Court are easy for experienced tax practitioners to satisfy, but can be daunting for those who do not spend much of their professional time dealing with tax law.
Fourth, no attorney is immune from the pressures of tending to clients and getting work done in a timely fashion. Having a good track record of meeting deadlines and racking up worthwhile accomplishments does not guarantee immunity from life and career unraveling. The key to avoiding this sort of mess is keeping an eye out for the small slippages that can turn suddenly into avalanches.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
History has demonstrated that there are crises of such magnitude that only an entire society, through government, can respond. Although it is possible for private enterprises to fight wars, respond to natural disasters, and put humans on the moon, government can do these things much more efficiently and effectively because of the government’s power to organize and regiment activities. People dealing with an invasion or the wreckage generated by a storm or earthquake don’t need private enterprise with its advertising, bait-and-switch, non-transparent ownership, shoddy services and products, and addiction to the bottom line. People struggling with the consequences of a catastrophe don’t need to be treated according to the size of their bank accounts, the amount of money in their wallets, or the number of “loyal shopper” cards that they carry.
It is probably true, as Richman contends, that without FEMA or state disaster relief agencies, people would not “just sit around in the rubble for the rest of their lives.” The problem is that some people would be confined to such an existence because they lack the resources to dig out from under the impact of disaster. But when Richman claims that people, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, even some people, would “do something, learn from their experience, and take precautions to minimize damage in the future,” I disagree. There is a long list of things that “people” and the free market private sector could do to minimize damage in the future, but that they have not done. They scoff at warnings. They belittle science, or anything that would nick the bottom line. In recent years, government, too, has failed to use its power to prevent future damage, such as prohibiting development on barrier islands or initiating a sea wall height increase project in Manhattan, because the same private sector worshipped by Richman uses its lackeys in the Congress to block just about any government action that gets in the way of its profit-maximization-at-any-cost agenda.
The track record of private enterprise, and the so-called free market in which it has operated and wants to operate, is spotty. Though there have been outstanding examples of private sector organizations that have done well not only by their customers and employees but also by their communities, there are too many embarrassing examples of free market behavior gone badly wrong. That there is a correlation between the size of the business and its beneficial or adverse impact on society is no surprise, as small business owners tend to have a personal, face-to-face connection with the people in their communities who are their customers, employees, and neighbors, whereas the big outfits tend to view customers and employees as fungible, replaceable commodities. Though most small community-focused businesses are willing to step up and help when disaster strikes, the same attribute that makes them so valuable – small size – becomes a liability. Something bigger is needed, and it isn’t Enron, Adelphia, Worldcom, or any of the other disconnected, non-transparent, bottom-line-addicted, opportunistic, and failed behemoths that have demonstrated why the public at large needs something bigger than the largest private sector entity to protect the interest of society. One only need read reports about the non-responsiveness of the private sector to understand the false premises on which Richman builds his case. The recent episode in New York, where government officials have had to step up to protect the interests of residents who find the private sector utilities non-responsive, as described in this report, among others, is a brutal indictment of how private sector enterprise remains impervious to society generally. Perhaps in a free market consumers would have some individual power, but because the giants of the private sector have monopolized segments of the free market, violated laws designed to keep the market free, manipulated market forces, and misled customers and employees, the market is not free. The only antidote is the coming together of people to unite their small individual forces into a huge force. That’s called government, that’s why it has the power Richman doesn’t like, and that’s why it needs to exist and to exercise that power. Otherwise, the megaliths of the private sector run amok, claiming that any steps taken against them will hurt the better-behaved small businesses that the behemoths are trying to absorb or destroy.
Given the choice between relying on taxpayer-funded FEMA or consumer-financed private sector enterprises behaving as described in this report, I think most Americans who give it any serious thought would vote for FEMA. The people on Long Island made that very clear last week. What they have shared of their experiences counts much more than laments over well-deserved societal regulation of the private sector administered by society’s agent, government.
Monday, November 12, 2012
What disturbs Frankel is the notion that people in rural areas and in the exurbs reflect self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, whereas people in urban areas wallow in decadence and are dependent on government. Using data drawn from various sources, he concludes that statistically, people living in so-called red states “are, on average, less prone to pay income taxes, more prone to receive subsidies from the federal government, less physically fit, less responsible in their sexual behaviour, more prone to inflict harm on themselves and on others through smoking, drunk driving and misuse of firearms, and more prone to freeride on the healthcare system, compared to blue-staters.” He adds that “it is the states with high percentages of people who pay no income tax that tend to vote Republican.” Put another way, blue states are makers and red states are takers. He shares similar observations with respect to rates of obesity, exercise, healthy nutrition, smoking, fatal accidents due to drunk driving, firearms assaults, safe sex, pregnancy, sexually-transmitted disease, sexual activity, and contraception use.
To me, and I could be wrong, the problem with analyzing this sort of data by state is that it treats everyone in the states as a homogenous group. Yet in so-called red states, with one or two exceptions, 40 to 45 percent of the vote goes blue, and in so-called blue states, with several exceptions, 40 to 47 percent of the vote goes red. On the other hand, if red voters outnumber blue voters in states with higher rates of zero tax payments, smoking, lack of exercise, firearms assaults, etc., and if they were not responsible for these higher rates, is it possible for the smaller number of blue voters to jack up a state’s rates to levels higher than those in states whose residents are predominantly blue voters? Charles Murray, a noted conservative-libertarian, took a look at this in his book, Coming Apart. He did his analysis by zip code, not state. He determined that in areas with high levels of income and education, traditional values of diligence and family were strongest. He concludes that those who practice desirable values fail to encourage others to follow along, being too attached to what he calls non-judgmentalism, whereas those who preach these values tend to fall short in living up to them.
Again, the problem I have with Murray’s conclusion is that the people in the red states who are preaching something may not be the people who are behaving in a contrary manner. But once again, the numbers are such that I wonder how, if a majority of residents are preaching and practicing hard work and personal responsibility, the state ends up on the low end in the rates of contrary behavior. Yet in looking at positions with respect to government spending, the same pattern emerges. Opposition to government spending is paramount in red states, or, more specifically, among red voters who make up the majority of voters in red states. Yet opposition to cutting social security benefits is very strong in Arizona, opposition to cutting agricultural price supports is very strong in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and similar prairie states, cutting water subsidies encounters opposition in states like Utah, and so on. To be fair, opposition to cutting other programs is no less strident in blue states and among blue voters. The disconnect between political philosophy and political practice looms large.
How does this square up? Frankel offers this analysis:
Do these statistical relationships between personal responsibility and voting behaviour have analytical implications? How can one explain such counter-intuitive results? I have pondered this puzzling question. I am still not sure of the answer. But here is what I have to offer.Yes, it’s a theory, and it’s one that I explored last month in Dependency, Government Spending, Tax Breaks, and Middle School, concluding, “For one group of dependent Americans to attack another is absurd, especially when the attacking group thinks it can pull off this sort of nonsense because its dependency is not as visible.” Perhaps it is time for voters who dominate the outcomes in the red states to reconsider their antipathy toward government spending, now that it is apparent that most red states send to the U.S. Treasury less than they take back from it. Perhaps it is time to practice what is preached.
* * * * *
It stands to reason that some people are less self-aware than others, and less knowledgeable on how the budget adds up, for whatever other reason. We hear repeatedly of seniors who tell politicians to keep the federal government away from their medicare, of ranchers who support the Tea Party or right-wing militia while collecting farm subsidies.
The people who suffer the biggest gap between their perceived and actual share of the federal pie are likely to be getting a disproportionate share and yet to believe the opposite. If they believe that others are getting more than they themselves are, they are more likely to buy into the angry belief that other social groups are freeriding on society, and the ideology that government spending is wasteful and needs to be cut back, without realising that this includes the benefits they themselves receive. Perhaps these people are more likely to vote for Republican politicians, who tell them what they want to hear. It’s a theory, anyway.
Friday, November 09, 2012
Because states cannot compel a business to do use tax collection for it unless the business has nexus with the state, some states are attempting to expand the definition of nexus so that it makes nexus exist under pretty much all circumstances. For a variety of reasons, it is wrong, both as a matter of policy and as a matter of efficiency and administration, to require businesses lacking a real connection with a state to do use tax collections for the state. That argument was raised recently in a commentary by Bartlett D. Cleland of the Institute for Policy Innovation. Unfortunately, Mr. Cleland paints the effort to shift collection responsibilities as the imposition of a tax on the retailers, whereas in fact the retailers would not be paying a tax, but passing along a tax imposed on their customers. What is being imposed on the retailers is the aggravation and financial cost of being required to collect taxes for a state with which the only connection is the ability of a resident of that state to view a retailer’s web site on servers not located in that state.
Compelling a business to collect use tax for a state is not “a radical expansion of government taxing power.” It does not change the scope or computation of the use tax. What it does is to force out-of-state retailers to function as tax collectors for the state. It constitutes a radical expansion of government police power. In that context, objections can be raised that might not find strong ground if the proposal to expand nexus is viewed as an expansion of the taxing power. Similarly, when Mr. Cleland describes the proposal as one that would permit a state to engage in “taxing businesses anywhere,” it overstates the flaws of the proposal and makes it easier for the proposal’s advocates to defuse objections to the proposal. On the other hand, when Mr. Cleland describes the proposal as one that “would be to accept state government as limitless as the Internet,” he makes the point the way I think it should be made.
Compelling a business to collect use tax for a state is not, as Mr. Cleland puts it, “taxing without representation.” The use tax is imposed on the retailer’s customers. Compelling a business to collect use tax for a state is “forcing a business to do work without representation.” That is, in some ways, a more serious matter. The use tax itself, like a sales tax, can be passed along to customers, because they are the ones with an existing legal obligation to pay that tax, though few do. The cost and aggravation of functioning as a tax collector for a state in which the retailer does not do business can be passed along to customers only if the retailer wants to risk losing customers because of the price increase.
Perhaps a better approach is for states to seek voluntary contracts with out-of-state retailers, compensating them for serving as tax collectors. There may be state Constitutional provisions or legislation that prohibits contracting tax collection to out-of-state individuals or entities, though I doubt that is the case. For some businesses, being compensated to engage in use tax collection might help the bottom line.
To be clear, I do not disagree with Mr. Cleland’s dissatisfaction with the proposal to change the definition of nexus in a way that makes every business responsible for tax collection duties for thousands of state and local governments. I simply think that the objections should be articulated in a manner that reflects the problem, which is not an expansion of taxing power, but the imposition of involuntary tax collection duties.
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Understand, I’m not a fan of the federal flood insurance program in its current form because it fails to discourage the ever-increasing development on barrier items and in flood-prone areas. Casualty insurance companies will decline to issue insurance when the applicant’s property violates safety codes or otherwise presents too big of a risk. The amount of human suffering and property losses caused by destructive storms and earthquakes can be, and have been, reduced by insurance company insistence on risk mitigation.
Yet it boggles my mind that someone who thinks that the federal flood insurance program should be eliminated takes advantage of it, not only enrolling in its coverage, but collecting payouts three different times because a beach house is built where it will be knocked down. John Stossel, the commentator in question, agrees with me that the program foolishly is “encouraging people to build homes in high risk areas.” If that is how he truly feels, then why is he building and rebuilding his home in a high-risk area? Is he a subscriber to the philosophy of “do as I say, not as I do”?
Why is the federal government running a flood insurance program? The answer is simple. Private insurers declared the peril of flood to be “uninsurable.” The recent barrage of intensely destructive storms demonstrates the difficulty in providing flood insurance. The damage is so catastrophic over so wide an area that the premiums necessary to cover losses become prohibitively high. In addition, the government can order property owners in flood areas to purchase the insurance, whereas private companies cannot do so and are at the risk of having as customers only those property owners in extremely high-risk areas.
It is fairly easy to respect someone’s position when they live up to its principles. It is extremely difficult to respect the opinions of a person who fails to behave in a manner consistent with how they claim everyone else should be acting.
Monday, November 05, 2012
Yet despite the general American understanding of the role a national government must play when dealing with national disasters, some politicians, their financial patrons, and their cronies prefer that the federal government, and in some instances, all governments, abandon their disaster assistance efforts. For example, as summarized in this report, House Republicans passed the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act of 2012, which, had the Senate agreed, would have eliminated the Social Services Blog Grant program which, among other things, funds disaster relief, even though it has lost 77 percent of its value since 1981 due to inflation and budget cuts. In the Budget Control Act, one of the provisions on which House Republicans successfully insisted was a $900 million cut from the budget of FEMA.
Disasters demonstrate yet another consequence of trying to shrink or eliminate government, particularly its function of leveling the playing field. According to a study focusing on Social Vulnerability to Environmental Hazards, inequality was the most important predictor of vulnerability to storm damage. The sorts of factors contributing to vulnerability are the circumstances that federal and state government programs are designed to eliminate, such as lack of access to information and technology, health problems, inadequate housing, and access to political power. Another study,On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina, lack of affordable housing, substandard housing, insufficient financial resources to evacuate in advance of storms, and inadequate education and literacy skills shift the impact of disasters disproportionately onto the poor in the absence of government intervention.
In the meantime, according to this story, the Forest Service ran out of funds to fight forest fires. So it was forced to use its funds slated for fire prevention. Congress eventually transferred some money to the Forest Service, but it still came up short. The formula used for funding the fire fighting efforts is based on an average of the previous ten years of fire fighting costs, but that formula does not work in an era of rapidly expanding fires. There are more fires, they affect wider areas, and they burn more intensely. This trend will continue, just as the trend of increasingly devastating hurricanes and superstorms, a longer tornado season marked by more severe storms afflicting wider areas, and more damaging snowstorms, floods, and mudslides, awaits the nation.
In an age of spiraling disasters and their consequential economic devastation, cutting government is flat out foolish. It’s also immoral.
Friday, November 02, 2012
This time around, according to this commentary, our attention is drawn to what happened with the financing of the Yankee Stadium parking garages. When the new Yankee stadium was built, the owners managed to extract all sorts of public benefits to assist them. New York City waived $2.5 million in taxes. New York State waived $5 million in taxes. Federal tax breaks amounted to $51 million. New York City dished out $32 million to replace public parks seized by the state legislature. The state’s Empire State Development Corporation contributed $70 million. Some claim that public investment in the stadium and its parking garages comes in at $1.3 billion. Critics has opposed the garages because sufficient public transportation existed in the area, and because the garages are not what is needed to revitalize the neighborhood. Critics predicted that the garages would not be economically feasible.
So what happened? As predicted, the garages are an economic failure. Not surprisingly, the Bronx Parking Development Company has defaulted on $237 million of bonds that qualified for tax-exempt status under three tax systems, city, state, and federal. New York’s mayor has proposed that, “If the owners of the parking garage can’t make money, that’s sad. We’ve got to find a way to help them.” Really? What about the people who can’t make money because the jobs for which they are educated and qualified have been shipped overseas? Should “we” help them? If welfare is so bad, as the anti-tax and anti-government forces claim, why do we find the same folks supporting public assistance for millionaires and billionaires? Why?
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
In Taxing "Snack" or "Junk" Food (2004), Halloween and Tax: Scared Yet? (2005), Happy Halloween: Chocolate Math and Tax Arithmetic (2006), Tricky Treating: Teaching Tax Trumps Tasty Tidbit Transfers (2007), Halloween Brings Out the Lunacy (2007), and A Truly Frightening Halloween Candy Bar (2008), Unmasking the Deductibility of Halloween Costumes (2009), Happy Halloween: Revenue Department Scares Kids Into Abandoning Pumpkin Sales (2010), and The Scary Part of Halloween Costume Sales Taxation (2011), I have aimed for the light-hearted, the ridiculous, or the goofy when describing how Halloween and taxation can intersect. My habit of playing with words found a ready environment when writing about tricks and treats.
This year, Halloween and its eve (which, yes, I know, grammarian friends, is redundant) have brought the worst sort of reason to explore the tax side of Halloween events. It’s not a time to play word games. It’s no fun to consider what the great storm of 2012 has done in terms of deductions for disaster losses, casualty losses, medical expenses, and the tax consequences of business interruption insurance payments and property insurance receipts. This sort of event puts candy and costumes into the background. Tax, of course, doesn’t go away. Nor will the anxiety, the pain, the sadness, the disappointment, and the sorrow that has descended on so many people. There are no deductions for those. Just prayers.
Monday, October 29, 2012
A good bit of commerce and traffic flows between Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario. Most of the travel between the two cities goes across the Ambassador Bridge. The Ambassador bridge is owned by billionaire Matty Moroun. The bridge is in terrible condition. The pathway for bicyclists and pedestrians, required by the charter authorizing the bridge, has been closed. Twice in the last three years, a state court has held Maroun’s bridge company in contempt for failing to update access roads and make other improvements required by state and federal law, and put him in jail for one night. Moroun also has been ordered to take down a duty-free shopping complex built on public land on the Detroit side of his bridge. And he faces a new set of fines for selling bad gasoline at that complex and disregarding orders to stop selling the noncompliant gasoline.
To deal with the deficiencies of the privately-owned bridge, authorities in Michigan and Ontario agreed to build a new bridge. Moroun proposed building a second privately-owned bridge, and sued sued to prevent the construction of the proposed public international bridge. Under the agreement, Canada would pay for the construction. The incentive for Canada is that the Canadian end of the privately-owned bridge terminates in local Windsor streets. The proposed new public bridge would connect directly to Canada’s limited access highway system.
Stymied in his litigation efforts to prevent the construction of the new public bridge, Moroun paid more than $4 million to put a proposed Michigan state constitution amendment on the ballot. The amendment would prohibit the building of public international bridges unless approved by two-thirds of the Michigan legislature. Moroun then shelled out more than $9 million to purchase ads supporting his proposed constitutional amendment, falsely claiming that the cost of the proposed bridge would fall on Michigan taxpayers. These misleading, to use a gentle adjective, have been roundly criticized, yet polls show that the proposed amendment is favored by Michigan residents 47 percent to 44 percent. A substantial number of Michigan residents do not live or work within 25 miles of the proposed bridge location, and thus presumably see no direct personal interest in its construction. Moroun’s ads don’t mention the fact that the new bridge would add 12,000 jobs during the first four years of the construction, and 8,000 jobs permanently.
So enter Grover Norquist, king of the anti-tax movement. About a year ago, in Tax Policy, Elections, and Money, If the Government Collects It, Is It Necessarily a Tax?, and Debunking Tax Myths?, I explored the unwarranted and excessive influence that the unelected Norquist holds over federal, state, and local tax policy and decision making, described the adverse effect of his efforts on the American people and the nation’s economy, and concluded, based on his own words, that his anti-tax stance is simply part of his strategy to destroy government.
Norquist, who does not appear to have any connections to Michigan other than his desire to eliminate its taxes, showed up at a press conference to support the billionaire’s proposed constitutional amendment to block a public bridge so that he can maximize his profits while failing to maintain his private bridge properly and failing to comply with court orders. Legal experts are debating whether the constitution amendment would apply to a project already approved, with some concluding that courts would reject retroactive application.
So a so-called billionaire job creator uses his tax cut money to fund opposition to the creation of jobs. People fall for the billionaire’s misrepresentations, and fail to understand what is in their own best interests. An anti-tax, anti-government crusader joins forces with the ultra-wealthy in an effort to continue a privatized bridge that has brought fortune to its billionaire owner and troubles for its users and the neighborhoods of Windsor through which its traffic flows. Will it take another catastrophe, such as a collapse, or a vehicle falling through a pothole, for the public to rise up in indignation? Will the cry then be the familiar “How did the government let this happen?” If so, my response will be, “How did you people let this happen?” I know the answer. You voted the wrong way, and you got what you voted for.
Friday, October 26, 2012
There are the padded invoices funneling tax dollars to someone’s cronies. That’s wrong. There are the expenses that bring no return, or a benefit less than what has been spent. When dealing with public funds, that’s wrong. There is the spending that would not be necessary but for the negligence of someone whose inattention causes damage to public property. Though the spending is necessary, the cause of the spending is wrong, and ultimately reimbursement should be sought.
And then there is the foolish spending. I first met foolish spending when I was a child, and I listened attentively as my father and his siblings complained about a decision of the Philadelphia School Board to install carpet in an elementary school. I remember one of my uncles commenting, “We don’t need our schools to be Taj Mahals.” Someone else opined that a contractor was getting some sort of deal. One of my aunts pointed out that it is foolish to install carpet in a building where most of the occupants are prone to throwing up, and that cleaning tile floor is much easier than cleaning carpet. Looking back, perhaps I should have said, though surely I would have been admonished for interrupting the adults, that perhaps some contractor running a carpet cleaning business was in on the deal.
Recently, a reader brought to my attention to what I think presently holds the prize for Taj Mahal spending at a school. According to this story, the school district in Allen, Texas, opened a $60 million high school football stadium. The funds came from a bond issue for which 63 percent of those voting gave approval. School district officials explained that it was not their intention to recoup the costs, and that it is not practical to do so.” Although it is expected that revenues will exceed the cost of operations, it is very unlikely that the bond issue will be paid back with anything other than taxpayer dollars.
The stadium in question has a 38-foot wide high-definition video screen, spacious weight rooms, separate practice areas for the wrestling and golf teams, and concrete rather than aluminum stands. The absurdity of the cost is highlighted by the fact that in today’s dollars, the Cotton Bowl cost $4.5 million, and the stadium currently being built by the University of North Carolina-Charlotte is tagged at $45 million. Someone’s making money on this deal, and it isn’t the taxpayers and it isn’t the students.
The absurdity of the decision to spend $60 million on a football stadium is exacerbated by the fact it was done during a bad economy, at a time when school districts are laying off teachers, working with outdated textbooks, enlarging class sizes, and producing students whose world ranking in core subjects continues to drop. It raises questions about priorities. As Ross Perot put in thirty years ago, when there was outrage at the spending of $5.6 million for a high school football stadium, also in Texas, “Do we want our kids to win on Friday night on the football field or do we want them to win all through their lives?” The father of one football player provided a comment that could be considered a response: “There will be kids that come through here that will be able to play on a field that only a few people will ever get the chance to play in.” So it’s good to fork over tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to benefit a few kids? In return, what do the taxpayers get? A more educated nation? A nation whose citizens are competitive in a global marketplace? A healthier citizenry? Or just another version of taxpayer-funded entertainment for the benefit of a select group? What about facilities for the debate team? The language clubs? The science fair? The math contestants? Do they not matter?
The report that I read, one of dozens, used two phrases to describe this use of taxpayer money. One was “monumentally stupid.” The other was “pathetically ridiculous.” I’m having difficulty deciding which is the better description. What I can choose is the report’s final two sentences: “The voters of Allen, Texas ought to be ashamed of themselves, look in the mirror, and ask themselves what’s more important, a cool football stadium or their children’s future? So far, they’ve answered that question incorrectly.” Indeed they have.