While President Obama mentioned taxes a number of times in his State of the Union speech last night, the details were scant.
He addressed corporate tax reform by noting that the Tax Code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here and reward companies that keep profits abroad. “Let’s flip that equation. Let’s work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs right here at home,” he said (see Obama Calls for Wage Increases and Tax Reforms in State of the Union).
Next, he urged the nation to continue its progress toward solar energy by enacting “a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”
Later in his speech, he spoke of strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit. “I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it doesn’t do enough for single workers who don’t have kids,” he said. “So let’s work together to strengthen the credit, reward work, help more Americans get ahead.”
He proposed a new savings bond to encourage savings, called the MyRA, for workers whose employers do not offer 401(k)s. And lastly, without going into detail, he invited Congress to “ send me legislation that protects taxpayers from footing the bill for a housing crisis ever again, and keeps the dream of homeownership alive for future generations.”
“From the State of the Union address, it appears the Administration will be focusing on priorities other than tax reform,” said Eric Solomon, Ernst & Young co-director of America’s Tax Policy and former assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury. “It will be important to see what is in the Administration’s budget proposal in early March. The next step toward reform may be a tax reform proposal from Chairman Camp [Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee]. Businesses would be wise to stay abreast of potential changes to both corporate and individual taxation.”
“At the beginning, he mentioned where he appreciated Democrats and Republicans working together to produce a budget,” said AICPA vice president of taxation Edward Karl. “But the funding level they agreed to for the IRS is below 2009 funding level, and that’s in today’s dollars, and it’s before they took on the chore of their responsibilities under the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. It’s very concerning for the IRS to have $500 million cut from its budget and expect it to implement the ACA.”
“The IRS has to deal with turnover, training new hires, the hugely growing problem of identity theft, and its everyday responsibilities to help taxpayers and practitioners,” Karl said. He noted that the IRS is stuck with its current inadequate level of funding until the fiscal year ends September 30, “unless a supplemental spending bill is passed later in the year.”
“The agency needs to have proper levels of funding to function,” he said. “The wait times on their phone lines are at extraordinarily long lengths. They don’t have the money to reprogram the e-service platform, so now they’re going back to paper forms. Unfortunately, the missteps they made drive a lot of the thinking on Capitol Hill. It’s appropriate for Congress to provide oversight, but taking it out of the budget is not the way to go.”
The Treasury will provide more clarity on the President’s proposals in the Greenbook in the coming weeks, Karl noted. “However, it will be up to Congress to implement any tax legislation,” he added. “The truth is in an election cycle any kind of tax legislation will be a challenge to get done before elections in November.”
Robert Kerr, senior director of government relations at the National Association of Enrolled Agents, agreed. “The President spoke about corporate reform, but I don’t see how you do corporate reform without doing individual reform,” he said. “I don’t think there is any political appetite for one without the other, and in all candor I’m not sure there is an appetite for both of them together.
“Ultimately, it comes down to two things,” Kerr said. “First, Democrats and Republicans can’t decide whether tax reform is an opportunity to raise revenue or whether it should be revenue neutral. Second, to have revenue neutral tax reform you have to take on the issue of which tax expenditures you reduce or eliminate.”
Miguel Farra, principal-in-charge of the Tax and Accounting Department at the accounting firm Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra, foresees higher taxes on the wealthy. “Based on the President’s remarks last night, the focus for tax reform will be to reduce or even eliminate the tax breaks for the wealthy in an attempt to fix the upside-down tax code,’ as it was referred to,” he said. “We will see a push for higher taxes for high net worth individuals, while spreading tax savings among the middle and lower classes. Those that fall into the higher income brackets need to start planning now in anticipation of the possible changes to the tax code that the President is advocating for.”
Roger Harris, president of Padgett Business Services, welcomed the discussion of corporate tax reform. However, he agreed that the focus on corporate reform was too narrow.
“If they’re open to tax reform, let’s go all the way,” he said. “My hope is I’d rather see a deal with complete tax reform rather than just focus on corporate tax.”
A major concern for Harris is the proposal for raising the minimum wage. “It was more a political discussion than a business discussion,” he said. “The caution is to remember that there is the assumption that big corporations can easily afford to pay raises, but there are a lot of small businesses struggling to pay their bills every month, particularly startups. Mandating an increase in wages to employees in a business that’s not profitable will have a negative impact. Every business that pays people doesn’t necessarily have enough money to pay more than they are currently paying. If I have five employees and give four of them a raise and fire the fifth, it will poll at 80 percent approval, but for the one who lost their job it’s a traumatic experience. I’d rather have a way to keep all five working.”