Senate Slowly Working Towards Passage of Housing Bill

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The U.S. Senate is now expected to wait until after the July 4 recess to vote on a bill (H.R. 3221) that reforms the government-sponsored mortgage funding companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, modernizes the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), allows the FHA to guarantee refinanced mortgages for homeowners in danger of foreclosure, and provides communities with additional Community Development Block Grant funds to buy foreclosed or abandoned properties.

The bill also includes over $14 billion in tax cuts aimed at housing. A provision costing $4.3 billion over ten years creates a refundable $8,000 credit for first-time homebuyers that must be paid back in equal installments over the next 15 years. This is the equivalent of an interest-free loan. Eligibility is phased out beginning with taxpayers with incomes of $75,000 (or married couples with incomes of $150,000). It's not clear how helpful this could be, partly because it would not make any money available at the time a down payment is made but would be claimed afterwards.

Another provision costing $1.5 billion over ten years creates a deduction for property taxes for non-itemizers, which is capped at $500 per spouse. Because of the home mortgage interest deduction that is currently available for itemizers, most people with a mortgage already itemize their deductions. That means that the main beneficiaries of this provision will likely be homeowners who don't have mortgages -- even though this is a bill that is supposed to address a mortgage foreclosure crisis.

The bill also includes provisions to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and to increase the use of bonds by state and local government to address housing needs.

Limitation Interferes with State and Local Property Tax Decisions

Disturbingly, the new non-itemizer deduction for property taxes will be denied to people living in a jurisdiction that recently raised its property taxes, discouraging local governments from raising revenue needed to deal with growing fiscal problems. State and local governments hardly need an extra reason to avoid raising property taxes, given the unpopularity of that particular form of taxation at this time despite massive budget shortfalls in the states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that this limitation interferes with state and local prerogatives and would create an administrative headache for the IRS.

Most Unjustified Tax Break Left Out of New Version in the Senate

Fortunately, the very worst provision of the previous Senate bill has been dropped from this version. That is the "net operating loss carryback" provision (or NOL carryback) that would have allowed companies taking losses this year and next year to deduct them against taxes they paid in the previous four years (instead of the previous two years, as currently allowed). This would basically be a tax break with no strings attached for any company (not just home builders). Citizens for Tax Justice and several other groups had issued harsh criticisms of the previous Senate bill because of this and other provisions.

Senate Bill Includes Revenue-Raising Provisions But Is Not Quite Deficit-Neutral

The bill replaces $9.8 billion of the revenue by requiring banks to report to the IRS credit card transactions for most businesses. It replaces another $1.4 billion by limiting the provision that currently allows someone who sells a home to exclude the resulting gains from taxable income. Some more revenue is replaced by increases in various penalties, but the bill still leaves about $2.5 billion of the $14 cost unpaid for, a shortcoming that Democrats in the House of Representatives will likely attempt to rectify when they receive the bill.

Bill Faces Amendment Dispute, Veto Threats

This week Senator John Ensign (R-NV) demanded that a $8 billion amendment to extend tax breaks for renewable energy -- without any revenue-raising provisions to offset the costs -- be attached to the housing bill. He has promised to use procedural mechanisms to slow the consideration of the bill if this amendment is not adopted. This forced Senate leaders to push consideration of the bill off into the week after the July 4 recess.

Even after the Senate approves the bill, the House may approve another version that improves upon the revenue-raising provisions or other parts of the bill, which would require another Senate vote of approval. Then it faces a veto threat from the White House, partly because it feels the credit for first-time homebuyers is a waste of resources.

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