Tax Collection News

The Inversion Parade Continues: Steris Announces Pretend Move to Britain

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As we mentioned a couple weeks ago, the Treasury Department cannot fix the inversion crisis by itself. Only weeks after the Obama Administration announced that Treasury will take important regulatory steps to help prevent U.S. -based companies from inverting to foreign havens as a tax-dodging strategy, the Ohio-based Steris Corporation announced its plan to purchase a British health care firm and reincorporate in the United Kingdom.

While Treasury’s new efforts appear to have dissuaded at least one company from going forward with previously-announced inversion attempts, all it appears to have done in this case is to make Steris’s leadership deny that inversion was their idea: Steris’ CEO, Walt Rosebrough, said in a press conference that "[i]t was only our advisers that brought [the tax advantages] to us. It's not naturally something we would think of."

This is a little hard to swallow given the company’s recent history. Steris has subsidiaries in a wide range of tax havens, from the British Virgin Islands and Barbados to Mauritius and Luxembourg. Despite consistently earning more than two-thirds of its revenue in the United States and holding about 90 percent of its assets domestically, the company discloses that, somehow, 94 percent of its cash is currently being held (at least on paper) outside the United States.  Steris now holds a total $222 million in “permanently reinvested earnings” abroad—profits that have never been taxed by the U.S., and after a successful inversion may never be subject to our federal income tax. It’s impossible to know just how much of this cash is sitting in beach-island tax havens, but it seems unlikely that Steris owns a Virgin Islands subsidiary because of that country’s lucrative market for hand hygiene compliance programs (that’s one of the things Steris sells). 

As recently as 2012, the company reported a large cut in its U.S. taxes as the result of what it cryptically describes as “the rationalization of operations in Switzerland.”

So when it comes to tax avoidance, this is emphatically not Steris’s first rodeo.

Even more interesting, it appears that Steris is currently paying lower income tax rates to the federal government than it is to the other nations in which it does business. Over the past three years, the company has faced a current federal tax rate averaging 16.3 percent—well below the 28.5 percent foreign tax rate Steris paid on its overseas profits over the same period.

If Steris’ inversion is a naked attempt to avoid paying any taxes on its offshore cash, will the Treasury Department’s new regulatory strategy prevent it? No. As CTJ’s Rebecca Wilkins points out, the Treasury “can make getting at that offshore cash a longer and more complicated process, but ultimately cannot stop Steris from dodging taxes—they can only slow them down.”

All the more reason why the next Congress should do what this Congress couldn’t find the courage to—enact legislative fixes that will stop inversions in their tracks.

Republican National Committee Wants to Abolish the IRS

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abolishtheirs.jpgWith the 2014 election season in full swing, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has found its new fundraising campaign: calling for outright abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). While the RNC's new fundraising campaign is not surprising given the IRS's unpopularity and recent controversies, it does promote the deeply irresponsible idea that the IRS is not a critical component of a properly functioning government.

The RNC's campaign depends on its potential donors who will embrace their anger at the IRS and contribute to a campaign that claims it will abolish it, but ignores the fact that there is no viable way to have a functioning federal government without the IRS or some agency performing its exact function. Needless to say, the IRS collects nearly all the money that pays for the federal government, so those calling for its abolition would still need a way to collect the trillions of dollars necessary to fund Social Security, Medicare, the military, highways and the myriad of other crucial services that they support.

Even accepting the fact that this fundraising campaign is just overblown rhetoric, the underlying point that the IRS should be punished through "abolishment" or even just significant spending cuts is destructive. In fact, recent cuts in the IRS's budget have already hamstrung the organization's ability to respond to taxpayers’ needs and directly contributed to poor training and procedures that fueled the agency's recent controversies in the first place. In addition, cutting the IRS's budget actually increases the national deficit because every dollar spent on tax enforcement generates at least $10 in return.

While many GOP candidates have shied away from the irresponsible rhetoric of the RNC, Iowa senatorial candidate Joni Ernst has embraced the RNC's messaging saying that "closing the door" at the IRS would be a wonderful start to fixing the federal government. Similarly, anti-tax conservatives like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have long established their conservative bonafides by calling for the abolishment of the IRS. Perhaps more disconcerting than all this rhetoric is the fact that the House GOP has voted to exacerbate problems at the agency by using the IRS's recent unpopularity to push deep cuts to the agency's budget, including a particularly short-sighted cut of a quarter of the IRS's enforcement budget.

Rather than demagoguing about abolishing the IRS, national political parties and their members in Congress should call for a substantial increase in the agency's budget and consider the multitude of thoughtful reforms proposed by groups like the non-partisan National Taxpayer Advocate.

Partners in Crime? New GAO Report Shows that Large Corporate Partnerships Can Operate Without Fear of Audits

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More than a decade ago, a Republican-led Congress held a series of “show trials” designed to paint a picture of the Internal Revenue Service as intrusive, jackbooted thugs. It worked — at least well enough to convince Congress, which has since embarked on a decade-long trend of gradually defunding the IRS’s enforcement capabilities. But a new report from the General Accounting Office  (GAO) is the latest indicator that the pendulum has swung too far toward defanging the IRS’s enforcement capabilities. The GAO report shows that a business form known as “widely held partnerships” is growing dramatically — and that the IRS is able to audit less than 1 percent of the very largest such firms.

Businesses that are partnerships are not subject to the corporate income tax. Instead, the profits are passed along to the partners, who pay personal income taxes on them. Under current rules, this means that when the IRS wants to audit the partnership’s tax filings, it must examine the tax returns of each of the organization’s partners — and levying an adjustment is similarly burdensome for the IRS. The largest such partnerships, including hedge funds and private equity firms, can have hundreds or even thousands of partners. Even an adequately funded IRS might understandably find it difficult to audit even the most blatant partnership tax dodger.

But of course, the IRS is not adequately funded.The agency has lost 10,000 employees since 2010, more than 30 percent of which worked in enforcement areas.

If the prospect of large partnerships being able to bank on the inability of the IRS to audit them sounds like trouble, it is: the revenue stakes are potentially huge. The GAO estimates that the largest partnerships had $69.1 billion in total net income in 2011 alone. Any aggressive tax avoidance practiced by these firms will have a real effect on our nation’s budget deficit.

In a statement on the report, Senator Carl Levin from Michigan said, “Auditing less than 1 percent of large partnership tax returns means the IRS is failing to audit the big money. It means over 99 percent of the hedge funds, private equity funds, master limited partnerships, and publicly traded partnerships in this country, some of which earn tens of billions each year, are audit-free.”

Astonishingly, both President Barack Obama and outgoing House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp have proposed sensible (partial) solutions to this problem. Both propose to allow the IRS to audit partnerships at the entity level, the same way they audit publicly traded corporations. Sadly, neither has proposed to completely reverse the damaging loss of IRS audit capacity caused by recent budget cuts.

Unfortunately, Camp’s proposal is embedded within a larger tax plan that altogether would result in a massive $1.7 trillion dollar deficit and make the tax code more regressive. Congress should enact the specific reform that would address the problem with partnerships now, on its own.

New CTJ Reports Explain Obama's Budget Tax Provisions

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New CTJ Reports Explain the Tax Provisions in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Proposal

Two new reports from Citizens for Tax Justice break down the tax provisions in President Obama’s budget.

The first CTJ report explains the tax provisions that would benefit individuals, along with provisions that would raise revenue. The second CTJ report explains business loophole-closing provisions that the President proposes as part of an effort to reduce the corporate tax rate.

Both reports provide context that is not altogether apparent in the 300-page Treasury Department document explaining these proposals.

For example, the Treasury describes a “detailed set of proposals that close loopholes and provide incentives” that would be “enacted as part of long-run revenue-neutral tax reform” for businesses. What they actually mean is that the President, for some reason, has decided that the corporate tax rate should be dramatically lowered and he has come up with loophole-closing proposals that would offset about a fourth of the costs, so Congress is on its own to come up with the rest of the money.

To take another example, when the Treasury explains that the President proposes to “conform SECA taxes for professional service businesses,” what they actually mean is, “The President proposes to close the loophole that John Edwards and Newt Gingrich used to avoid paying the Medicare tax.”

And when the Treasury says the President proposes to “limit the total accrual of tax-favored retirement benefits,” what they really mean to say is, “We don’t know how Mitt Romney ended up with $87 million in a tax-subsidized retirement account, but we sure as hell don’t want to let that happen again.”

Read the CTJ reports:

The President’s FY 2015 Budget: Tax Provisions to Benefit Individuals and Raise Revenue

The President’s FY 2015 Budget: Tax Provisions Affecting Businesses

Tax Preparers Should Be Regulated

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When individuals fill out their tax returns, billions of dollars -- both for individual taxpayers and for the federal government -- are at stake. This is one reason why more than half of U.S. taxpayers rely on paid tax preparers to help them.

And yet, there are no national standards to ensure tax preparers are well qualified to play this critical role (only four states have taken licensing into their own hands) despite the fact that many preparers are error-prone, or worse. When the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration sent auditors into the field to pose as taxpayers seeking preparer services in 2008, 61 percent of the resulting tax returns were found to be flawed. While 65 percent of the mistakes were honest lapses, the other 35 percent were “willful or reckless” misstatements or omissions. The Government Accountability Office reached similar conclusions in a 2006 study, and the National Taxpayer Advocate has been sounding the alarm on this issue for years.

The IRS recently found that the net "tax gap" (the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid after enforcement measures are taken) was $385 billion in 2006, and that $235 billion came from individual income tax underreporting. Tax preparers certainly had a great deal to do with this.

And even relatively small parts of this problem -- like underreporting related to income tax credits, which accounted for $28 billion of the tax gap -- can have huge implications for the individual families affected. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) involves complicated rules and steep penalties for the taxpayer if any misrepresentations are identified, even if the mistakes are inadvertent or caused by preparer error. Roughly half of returns claiming an EITC in 2011 were filed with the help of an unregulated preparer.

While the rate of EITC overpayments has been greatly overstated, the truth is that there are too many overpayments and underpayments of EITC benefits and incompetent or nefarious preparers are partly to blame. Some have been known to offer EITC refunds in the form of deceptive loan products with exorbitant fees.

In reaction to these concerns, the IRS issued regulations in 2011 that would require unenrolled paid preparers to pass a certification exam, pay fees, and take continuing education courses. These regulations are not unprecedented. Some paid preparers who also represent taxpayers before the IRS during appeal proceedings -- like attorneys, certified public accountants, and “enrolled agents” -- are already regulated. And similar requirements currently apply to volunteer tax preparers who work through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

Unfortunately, the 2011 regulations were never implemented because commercial tax preparers attempting to avoid the certification requirements brought suit and won in federal district court. The challengers claimed that the IRS only had statutory authority to regulate preparers that assist taxpayers in their dealings with the IRS after their returns have already been filed (the aforementioned “enrolled” agents), not those who help prepare the return before filing. While it may not seem like a meaningful distinction, federal judges have now ruled against the IRS twice. The latest rebuke came this week from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Assuming the Supreme Court does not take up the case (the IRS has not yet announced if it will appeal), the burden will fall on Congress to give the IRS the explicit authority to pursue these important reforms. As the National Community Tax Coalition and the National Consumer Law Center wrote in their amicus brief to the DC Circuit Court, “Without such regulation, consumers are at the mercy of an industry with no minimum training or competency standards for one of the most critical financial transactions that consumers engage in every year.”

Republican Platform Now Endorses Gutting Laws that Stop Offshore Tax Evasion

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(Updated 1/24/2014 to reflect the fact the resolution passed.)

At its yearly winter meeting, the Republican National Committee approved a resolution calling for the repeal of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a major law enacted in 2010 (as part of the HIRE Act) to clamp down on offshore tax evasion.

FATCA was enacted in the wake of revelations that the Swiss bank UBS had helped American citizens evade U.S. income taxes by illegally hiding income in offshore accounts. The most important provisions of FATCA basically require Americans, including those living abroad, to tell the IRS about offshore assets greater than $50,000, and apply a withholding tax to payments made to any foreign banks that refuse to share information about their American customers with the IRS.

Those who are directly affected by FATCA are likely to be few in number and they certainly have the means to fill out the disclosure form required with their federal income tax return under its provisions. The $50,000 threshold excludes housing and other non-financial assets. That means that even a relatively well-off American who works for a few years abroad and even someone who owns a house abroad will not be affected unless they hold over $50,000 in cash or financial assets in the other country.

Whatever inconvenience is caused by these requirements is far outweighed by the benefits to the U.S. and its law abiding taxpayers. According to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), FATCA's anti-tax evasion measures are estimated to raise $8.7 billion (PDF) over their first decade of implementation. (JCT does have a history of underestimating tax enforcement measures.) Considering that the U.S. loses an estimated $100 billion (PDF) annually due to offshore tax abuses, this seems like a modest reform.

In May 2013, Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation to repeal the important parts of FATCA, claiming that this is necessary to protect privacy. But there simply is no right of Americans to hide income from the IRS. As we explained at that time, for a country with a personal income tax (like the U.S.), that kind of information sharing is indispensible to tax compliance, as the IRS stated in its most recent report on the “tax gap”:

“Overall, compliance is highest where there is third-party information reporting and/or withholding. For example, most wages and salaries are reported by employers to the IRS on Forms W-2 and are subject to withholding. As a result, a net of only 1 percent of wage and salary income was misreported. But amounts subject to little or no information reporting had a 56 percent net misreporting rate in 2006.”

Other opponents of FATCA, like the Wall Street Journal, have claimed that it is causing Americans living abroad to renounce their U.S. citizenship, but as we have pointed out, those renouncing citizenship make up a tiny fraction of one percent of the six million Americans living abroad.

The Dumbest Spending Cut in the New Budget Deal

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The newly passed $1.1 trillion bipartisan budget appropriations bill includes myriad spending cuts, but the $526 million cut to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has to be the most foolish. Under the new budget, the IRS's 2014 budget will be $11.3 billion, which is $1.7 billion less than the administration requested and about $2.5 billion higher than the radical 25 percent cut proposed by some House Republicans earlier this year.

As Nina Olsen, the non-partisan United States Taxpayer Advocate, notes in her recent annual report, cutting the IRS budget makes very little sense since every "dollar spent on the IRS generates more than one dollar in return - it reduces the budget deficit." In fact, as we've noted before, every dollar invested in the IRS can generate as much as $200 in deficit reduction.

Unfortunately, lawmakers have not seen it this way in recent years. Since 2010, the IRS has been forced by an 8 percent cut in its budget (adjusting for inflation) to reduce its staff by 11,000 people and its spending on training its employees by 83 percent. These cuts have taken place even though there are now 11 percent more individual and 23 percent more business tax returns for the agency to handle.  As IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified at his confirmation hearing in December, a recent report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) found that at least $8 billion had been lost in compliance revenue due to budget cuts.

The impact on customer service has also been dramatic. In 2013, customer service representatives from the IRS were only able to answer 61 percent of the calls made from taxpayers seeking help, which is a substantial drop from the 87 percent that were answered ten years ago. In other words, some 20 million calls by taxpayers seeking help went unanswered last year, even before this new round of budget cuts.

Ironically, many lawmakers have used the IRS “scandal” (the agency’s targeted scrutiny of organizations seeking tax-exempt status by screening for political words in their names) to argue that it be punished with these and even larger budget cuts. The reality is that the lack of budgetary resources was a major driver of the short-cuts that created the “scandal.” Further budget cuts will only create more problems at the agency.

If Congress is really interested in making the IRS work more effectively and in reducing the deficit, it should substantially increase the IRS's budget. When Congress cuts the IRS's budget, the only people who are really punished are the honest American taxpayers. 

Illinois Ruling Strengthens Case for a Federal Solution to Online Tax Collection

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Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down a state law (commonly called the “Amazon law”) that would have helped solve some of the sales tax enforcement problems surrounding online shopping.  As things currently stand in Illinois (and most other states), traditional retailers with stores, warehouses, or actual employees in Illinois are required to collect  state sales taxes from their customers, while online retailers who don’t employ any Illinois residents (or have any other “physical presence”) are given a free pass.  Online shoppers are supposed to pay the sales tax directly to the state when e-retailers fail to collect it, but few shoppers actually do this in practice.

Illinois, along with nine other states, had tried to strengthen its sales tax enforcement by requiring more online retailers to collect the tax (specifically, those retailers partnering with Illinois-based “affiliates” to market their products).  But this court ruling strikes down Illinois’ law on the grounds that it treats companies partnering with online affiliates differently than companies who advertise in Illinois through traditional media.  According to a majority of the justices, this feature of Illinois’ “Amazon law” violates a federal law enacted in 2000 that bars “discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.”

In his dissent, Justice Lloyd Karmeier points out that Illinois’ “Amazon law” didn’t actually impose any new taxes—it simply required a larger number of retailers to be involved in collecting and remitting sales taxes that are already due.  Karmeier went on to say that he would have upheld the law – in much the same way that New York’s highest court did with a similar law in that state earlier this year.

With Illinois’ and New York’s courts disagreeing on this issue, legal observers seem to think there’s a growing chance that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the case next year.  But it’s a shame it’s come to this.  The Supreme Court already made clear over two decades ago that Congress has the authority to set up a more rational, nationwide policy for how states can tax purchase made over the Internet.  The U.S. Senate did exactly that this May with a bipartisan vote in favor of the Marketplace Fairness Act, but so far the U.S. House of Representatives has yet to act on it.  We presume it’s the political disagreements among activists and lobby groups that’s prevented the House from acting so far, but it’s increasingly urgent that states finally be allowed to resolve the mess that is tax collection for online shopping.

Cartoon by Monte Wolverton, available at and courtesy Cagle Cartoons.

An Underfunded IRS Means More Tax Avoiders Get a Pass

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A troubling new report (PDF) released by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has revealed that the substantial budget cuts imposed on the IRS meant that it recovered $5 billion less in revenue from enforcement efforts in 2012 compared to 2011. That is, while law abiding citizens and businesses paid the taxes that make up the bulk of our federal revenues, more non-payers, late-payers and under-payers are getting a pass because there aren’t enough IRS staffers to follow up with them.

This drop in revenue should come as no surprise given that the IRS's annual budget was actually cut by some $329 million dollars from Fiscal Year 2010 to 2012. To absorb these cuts, the IRS was forced to get rid of 5,000 front-line enforcement workers – a 14 percent reduction of its enforcement personnel. Not so coincidentally, the TIGTA report notes that this 14 percent reduction in personnel correlates with the 13 percent reduction in revenue from enforcement over the past two years.

As we've noted before, cutting spending on the IRS budget is about the most counterproductive (and we’re being polite – other words are more fitting) ways to reduce the deficit because every one dollar invested in the IRS’s enforcement, modernization and management system saves the federal government as much as $200 in the long run.  So that loss of $5 billion in tax revenue in the TIGTA report amounts to this: every dollar the government cut under the guise of savings actually increases the deficit by $15. How's that for bad math?

Rather than reversing the budget cuts to the IRS in Fiscal Year 2013, Congress allowed the sequester to cut an additional $600 million from the agency’s budget. Looking ahead to Fiscal Year 2014, House Republicans are pushing to carve an additional $3 billion from the IRS, which would represent a cut of almost 25 percent of its entire budget.

Meanwhile, some of those pushing for these cuts view them as somehow a way to fix the IRS after the recent (trumped up) scandal over the process of granting tax exempt status to certain political groups. The reality that these anti-tax conservatives seem to be missing is that that the lack of resources at the agency was one of the main causes of the administrative issues surrounding the scandal, according to the National Taxpayer Advocate (PDF). In other words, cutting the IRS's budget further will almost certainly generate more problems within the agency, not fewer. 

Considering that the $50 billion recovered through enforcement in 2012 is only a fraction of the estimated $450 billion total tax gap, Congress should not only restore the funding lost to years of budget cuts, but significantly increase funding to help us reduce the deficit and pay for critical government investments.   

FACT: Online Sales Tax Does Not Violate Grover's "No Tax Pledge"

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There’s been some confusion in recent days about whether the 258 members of Congress who have signed Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” are allowed to vote in favor a bill that lets states collect sales taxes owed on purchases made over the Internet.  There is no reason for any confusion on this point.  Anybody with 15 seconds of free time and the ability to read the one sentence promise contained in the national pledge can see it’s completely irrelevant to the debate over online sales taxes:

I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Since federal income tax rates, deductions, and credits are altered exactly zero times in the online sales tax legislation set to be voted on by the Senate, Grover’s federal affairs manager is being less than truthful when she says that “there’s really not any way an elected official [who signed the pledge] can vote for this.”

There’s no doubt that Grover would be tickled pink to have gotten 258 of our elected officials to pledge opposition to improving states’ ability to limit sales tax evasion over the Internet.  For that matter, he would probably be even more excited to have gotten those officials to promise to vote against any increase in the estate tax, gasoline tax, or cigarette tax, as well as the creation of a carbon tax or a VAT.  But none of these things fall within the scope of the pledge, either, and it’s a shame that Grover and his spokespeople have shown no interest in being truthful on this point.

Online Sales Tax: Norquist vs. Laffer and Other Bedfellow Battles

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By now you've probably heard that the U.S. Senate is close to approving a bill that would allow the states to collect the sales taxes already owed by shoppers who make purchases over the Internet.  Currently, sales tax enforcement as it relates to online shopping is a messy patchwork, with retailers only collecting the tax when they have a store, warehouse, headquarters, or other “physical presence” located in the same state as the shopper.  In all other cases, shoppers are required to pay the tax directly to the state, but few do so in practice.  The result of this arrangement is both unfair (since the same item is taxed differently depending on the type of merchant selling it) and inefficient (since shoppers are given an incentive to shop online rather than locally).

Unsurprisingly, two of the strongest proponents of a federal solution to this problem have been traditional “brick and mortar” retailers that compete with online merchants and state lawmakers struggling to balance their states’ budgets even as sales tax revenues are eroded by online shopping.  But this issue has also turned anti-tax advocates, states without sales taxes, and even online retailers against one another in surprising ways, for reasons of ideology and self interest. 

Ideological Frenemies, Norquist and Laffer

Supply-side economist Arthur Laffer recently argued in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that states should be allowed to enforce their sales taxes on online shopping as a basic matter of fairness, so that “all retailers would be treated equally under state law.”  We completely agree with this point, but Laffer makes clear that his larger aim is to shore up state sales taxes in order to make cuts to his least favorite tax—the personal income tax. It’s no secret that Laffer wants states to shift toward a tax system that leans heavily on regressive sales taxes, but it’s harder to advocate for such a shift if the tax can be easily avoided by shopping online.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform stands in direct opposition to Laffer on this issue.  Norquist has been “making the case on the House side of either seriously amending it or even stopping” federal efforts to allow for online sales tax enforcement.  But Norquist reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the issue when he argues that out-of-state retailers should be free from having to collect sales taxes because “you should only be taxing people who can vote for you or against you.”  In reality, retailers aren’t being taxed at all—they’re simply being required to do their part in making sure their customers are paying the sales taxes already owed on their purchases.

Delaware vs. The Other No-Sales-Tax States

Four states levy no broad-based sales tax at either the state or local level: Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon and Senators from these last three states are generally not interested to helping other states enforce their sales tax laws. After all, why vote for a “new tax” if there’s no direct benefit to their own states’ coffers?

But Delaware’s senators see the issue differently, as both Sen. Carper and Sen. Coons voted in favor of the bill.  In fact, Carper introduced his own bill for collecting tax on e-purchases years ago, explaining it this way: “The Internet is undermining Delaware's unique status” because “part of Delaware's attraction to tourists is that people can come and shop until they drop and never have to pay a dime of sales tax.”

Amazon vs. Other Internet Retailers

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that online retailers as a group have opposed legal requirements that their customers pay sales taxes on their purchases since it means these e-retailers would have to charge and collect that tax.  Some companies, however, like Netflix, have long collected (PDF) those sales taxes, even without a legal requirement to do so. But most have clung to online sales tax evasion as a way to undercut traditional retailers by up to 10 percent (or more, depending on the sales tax rate levied where the buyer is located).

One recent exception is eBay, which appears to have seen the writing on the wall and has pivoted from opposing the bill to watering it down – and it’s deploying its 40 million users as an army of online lobbyists to that end.

But it is Amazon that stands apart from other online retailers in fully supporting a federal solution to the patchwork of state laws and the growing number of deals it has finally had to strike with states. The company’s reason is likely two-fold.

First, Amazon has a “physical presence” in a growing number of states and plans to continue its expansion in order to make next-day-delivery a reality for more of its customers. As a result, Amazon will be legally required to remit sales taxes in more states in the future and will find itself at a competitive disadvantage if other online retailers remain free from sales tax collection requirements.  Second, Amazon processes a large number of sales for other merchants through its website and collects sales taxes on behalf of some of them – for a fee.  Amazon’s sales tax collection services could become much more lucrative in the future if more of the merchants it partners with are required to collect sales taxes.


CEOs and Fix-the-Debt Gang Lobby for Terribletorial Corporate Tax System

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While the headlines on the fiscal cliff negotiations are about wrangling over the top individual tax rates, multinational corporations are quietly lobbying for an agreement to move the U.S. international tax rules to a territorial system.

Members of the so-called Fix the Debt Campaign have called for massive cuts to social programs while seeking additional tax breaks for their own companies. A move to a territorial system could give the 63 publicly-held companies in the Fix the Debt campaign an immediate windfall of up to $134 billion and would massively increase their incentives to move even more profits offshore, where they would then be permanently exempted from U.S. taxes. Terrible-torial.

Meanwhile, defense contractors that exhort Congress to find a “reasonable approach” are also lobbying for permanent tax breaks on their offshore earnings. And major corporations complain (perennially) about having to pay U.S. taxes on any foreign cash they decide to bring home.

Moving to a territorial tax system would be a disaster for the U.S. Treasury and an open invitation for multinational companies to intensify their offshore shenanigans. Our fact sheet explains why. For an illustration of why it’s such a bad idea, you only need to look at headlines from the U.K.  Because of their territorial tax system, they are unable to collect corporate income tax from U.S. corporate giants Starbucks, Amazon, and Google who are profiting wildly from sales and business in the U.K.  Recently, these multinational giants were hauled before Parliament to explain their “immoral” tax-dodging behavior.

The U.S. already collects only a fraction of the taxes corporations owe on their profits; why would we move to a system that makes the problem even worse?

"Tax-Hungry Politicians" Target Online Sales Tax Evasion

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Federal efforts to fight consumer sales tax evasion facilitated by the likes of continue to make news.  Last week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in which lawmakers appeared to agree on the need to empower states to enforce their sales tax laws even on purchases made over the Internet.  Specifically, the Committee heard testimony on legislation that would require out-of-state Internet retailers to collect and remit the sales taxes owed by their customers—just as big box stores and Mom & Pop shops alike have done for decades.

This week the Senate followed the House’s lead, with the Senate Commerce Committee holding a hearing to discuss similar legislation.  Influential state lawmakers, as well as many major retailers are backing these federal efforts.  And while it’s too early to guarantee any particular outcome (especially in an election year), it’s also clear that the federal government is taking this issue more seriously than ever.

Many lawmakers, like Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), are “completely sold on the fairness issue” of collecting sales taxes on all purchases regardless of whether they’re made online or at the local shopping mall.  But there are some holdouts who think the states should be forced to sit idly by while their sales tax bases shrink, their local businesses suffer, and the sales tax increasingly becomes an optional payment for anybody with an Internet connection.  Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) falls squarely into this category.

This week, DeMint authored a Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing that taxing online shopping would amount to an attack by “tax-hungry politicians” on “the essence of our democracy.”  As you might expect from such rhetoric, much of the piece is far-fetched.  Among other things, DeMint fears that improving the enforcement of state sales tax laws could lead to “talk of a streamlined national sales tax … with Washington taking a cut and destroying our nation’s healthy tradition of state tax competition.”  And throughout the piece, DeMint misses the mark by suggesting that states are trying to directly tax Amazon, eBay, and other online retailers, when in reality they’re only trying to involve those retailers in the collection of sales taxes already owed (but rarely paid) by their customers.

For more information, see this policy brief from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), as well as some of our previous coverage of this issue.

Tax Treason and a Facebook Billionaire

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Facebook® co-founder Eduardo Saverin is facing mounting public scorn for renouncing his US citizenship, presumably to save some tax money (which he says is not the case). There are even two US Senators after him! He left in September but the pile-on is happening this week because of Facebook’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) of its stock: Saverin’s share will be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 billion.

Saving Capital Gains Taxes
If Eduardo Saverin were a US citizen and sold his stock, most of that income would be subject to special low rate capital gains taxes of 15 percent (or 20 percent in future years if the new rate goes into effect January 1 as scheduled). By renouncing his citizenship, Saverin avoids paying those current and future capital gains taxes (and he would never have to pay the full income tax rate that Facebook employees exercising their stock options will be paying), but he does have to pay an "exit tax" (see below). Saverin now lives in Singapore, which doesn’t have a capital gains tax. 

Lowering the “Exit Tax”
When wealthy Americans give up their citizenship, they must pay an “exit tax” which treats all of their assets as if they’d been sold for fair market value (the actual tax payment can be deferred until the assets are sold). The fair market value of publicly-traded stock is what it traded for that day; privately-held stock must be appraised.

A spokesman for Saverin said that he renounced his citizenship last September, well ahead of this week’s Facebook IPO. Therefore, the stock’s valuation for “exit tax” purposes was likely substantially below its expected $38 IPO value, allowing Saverin to reduce his exit tax cost.

Not Tax, But Financial Decision
According to a spokesman, Saverin is expatriating for financial, not tax reasons. He doesn’t mind paying tax, he says, he just dislikes the complicated rules. He claims that the US rules, like the recently enacted Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), are preventing him from making some foreign investments he’d like to make.

Why It Feels Like Treason
Saverin emigrated to the US with his family at age 13 when his name turned up on a list of potential kidnap victims in his native Brazil where criminal gangs target the children of wealthy citizens and hold them for ransom. In the US, not only was Saverin safe from such violence, but he benefited enormously from government investment in education, the court system, and the Internet. Would he be a billionaire today if his family had relocated somewhere else?

Farhad Manjoo, a fellow immigrant, wrote a brilliant post (one of many, including this one) on the IT blog PandoDaily about what Eduardo Saverin owes America (nearly everything) including, quite possibly, his life. Taxes are the least of it.

Good News in Illinois: Hidden Business Tax Breaks May Soon See the Light

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It’s no longer news to most Americans that big, profitable corporations from Apple to General Electric are finding creative ways to zero out their income taxes.  Two widely cited recent reports on federal and state taxes from CTJ and ITEP identified dozens of companies that have achieved this dubious goal.

But the big news out of Illinois this week is that at least in the Land of Lincoln, lawmakers are taking positive steps towards doing something about rampant corporate tax avoidance. A bill introduced Wednesday by Senate President John Cullerton would require publicly traded companies to make available some basic information about the amount of state income taxes they pay, and specify which tax breaks reduced their taxes. The bill would also require companies to disclose their profits generated in Illinois, making it easy for lawmakers and the public to know whether these companies are really paying tax at the legal rate.

While the bill was approved by a Senate committee and sent to the Senate floor on Wednesday, its prospects for passage this year remain murky. And identifying the beneficiaries of unwarranted tax breaks is obviously only a first step towards repealing those tax breaks. But this legislation, along with a similar bill championed by the California Tax Reform Association in the Golden State, likely represents the beginning of a shift toward more transparency in corporate taxation—and that can only lead to improvements in the fairness of our overall corporate tax system.

Right now virtually every state (there are a few signs of hope) fails to disclose even the most basic information about corporate tax breaks. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Mazerov has the dirt on how your state can move in the right direction, as does the encyclopedic Good Jobs First.

Photo from Senator Cullerton's legislative website.

Senator Rand Paul: Champion of Secret Swiss Bank Accounts

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Remember the Tea Party? Well, freshman Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is living up to his reputation as the darling of the Taxed Enough Already movement that shook the 2010 elections. 

Rand Paul, son of Libertarian firebrand and GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, is currently blocking the Senate’s ratification of an amendment to the US-Swiss tax treaty, apparently worried about the right of tax evaders to financial privacy. He says the language is too “sweeping” and might jeopardize US constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. But as one former Treasury Department official said, Paul's move “smacks of protecting financial secrecy for those who may have committed criminal tax fraud in the US.”

The US and Swiss governments renegotiated their bilateral tax treaty as part of the 2009 settlement of the UBS case. That case charged the Swiss mega-bank UBS with facilitating tax evasion by US customers. Under the settlement agreement, UBS paid $780 million in criminal penalties and agreed to provide the IRS with names of 4,450 US account holders.

Before it could supply those names, however, UBS needed to be shielded from Swiss penalties for violating that country’s legendary bank-secrecy laws. The renegotiation of the US-Swiss tax treaty addressed that problem by providing, as most other recent tax treaties do, that a nation’s bank-secrecy laws cannot be a barrier to exchange of tax information.

Many tax haven countries were hiding behind their bank secrecy laws to deflect requests for account holder information, and the IRS and Justice Department have been investigating 11 Swiss financial institutions on criminal charges of facilitating tax evasion.

The Senate must ratify the treaty changes – which is normally a routine procedure.

By blocking the ratification, Senator Paul is holding up the exchange of information in the UBS case (and others) and hampering IRS efforts to crack down on tax evasion by Americans.

Tax evasion by individual taxpayers is estimated to deprive the US Treasury of as much as $70 billion per year (corporate offshore tax avoidance is estimated to cost the Treasury an additional $90 billion per year).

Given Senator Paul’s obvious concern about the deficit, he might have a hard time explaining to honest American taxpayers how he justifies protecting tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts as the deficit grows ever larger.

Photo of Rand Paul via Gage Skidmore Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Inching Towards An Online Sales Tax Policy

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This week brought news of a few more states tackling the challenge of taxing purchases made over the Internet in the same way as purchases made in “brick and mortar” stores.  Nevada and Tennessee got agreements from, the mother of all online retailers, to start doing its part to collect those taxes, and it looks like Massachusetts isn’t far behind.

  • In Nevada, will begin collecting sales taxes in 2014 under a new agreement announced on Monday.  The company already has major warehouses and distribution centers in the state.  Amazon’s agreement with Nevada is similar to deals struck in California, Indiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • As in Nevada, Amazon’s deal to begin collecting sales taxes in Tennessee won’t take effect until 2014, but a lesser known part of that agreement has already taken effect.  Amazon is mailing notices to all its Tennessee customers from throughout the past year letting them know that they may owe sales tax on the items they bought from the company, even though Amazon didn’t collect those taxes for them.  Similar annual notices will be sent by February 1st in both 2013 and 2014.
  • The Massachusetts Main Street Fairness Coalition is continuing its calls for the state to require that Amazon collect sales taxes, and The Boston Globe just chimed in to support the idea as well.  As the Globe explains, the company’s new offices in Massachusetts should be enough to bring the company within reach of the state’s sales tax collection laws.

Of course, these efforts are only partial solutions at best. may be the world’s biggest online retailer, but they’re hardly the only one.  Nevertheless, until the federal government acts to allow all states to enforce their sales tax laws on all purchases, these piecemeal victories are the best news we can hope for.

The Case of the Missing $96 Billion in Corporate Taxes

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The latest monthly statement by the Treasury Department contains a startling revelation: the amount that Treasury expects to collect in corporate taxes in 2012 has been slashed by more than 28 percent, from $333 down to $237 billion.

With such a dramatic revision, one might expect that lagging corporate profits or a sudden economic disruption is to blame. In reality however, corporate tax revenue continues to limp in spite of the fact that corporate profits have rebounded to record highs.

If corporate profits are not behind this $96 billion drop in expected corporate tax revenue, then what is?

The Wall Street Journal’s David Reilly suspects that there are two critical drivers: the offshoring of more profits through overseas entities by multi-national corporations; and the continuation of extravagant corporate tax breaks for accelerated depreciation of assets like equipment. Last month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) came to the same basic conclusion, explaining that corporate tax breaks and loopholes played an important role in driving the corporate tax rate to a 40 year low in 2011.

In order to prevent the continued decline of the corporate tax, Congress and the President should enact revenue-positive corporate tax reform, rather than their current revenue-neutral approach. Right now, political leaders of all stripes are proposing merely to eliminate some tax breaks but continue or even expand others and possibly reduce the statutory rate. With the federal deficit growing every day, asking profitable U.S. companies to pay something closer to the statutory tax rate is a reasonable (not to mention popular) approach.

Chart from is from the Wall Street article "U.S. Tax Haul Trails Profit Surge"

Grover and the Gas Tax: Right on Extension, Wrong on State Opt-Out

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Unless Congress acts, federal gas and diesel taxes will fall by about 80 percent on September 30.  If this is allowed to happen, spending on our nation’s already inadequate roads and transit systems will likely plummet, and Congress will face massive pressure to make up the difference through deficit spending or rerouting spending from other vital priorities.

Clearly, these outcomes are not ideal.  That’s why extending the gas tax – albeit at low rates – has always been a routine and bipartisan undertaking.  Today, however, the visceral opposition to taxes by many in Congress has led some observers to believe that the debate will be more hostile than usual, and that there is a real possibility – though small – that the gas tax will actually be allowed to expire.  Simply put, there is less and less that is “routine” in our nation’s capital anymore.

In a surprising and fortunate twist to this story, Grover Norquist stated flatly recently that a gas tax extension would not violate the no-tax pledge that 277 members of Congress have signed.  This should have already been obvious to anybody who’s taken the time to read Norquist’s 57-word pledge (it clearly applies only to income taxes), but his admission was nonetheless helpful in making that fact known.

Perhaps more surprising, though, was a confession by one of Norquist's employees that allowing the gas tax to fall so quickly would be too disruptive.  You know the situation is serious when even Norquist's group is cautioning against tax cuts.

Less encouraging was Norquist’s recent promise to push for a system in which states could opt-out of the federal Highway Trust Fund, and instead finance their roadways entirely with tax revenues generated inside their borders.  If allowed to happen, this would mark a major retreat from the federal government’s long-running role in helping to maintain our nation’s Interstate highways.

It should go without saying that the Interstate highway system is of immense importance to interstate commerce, and that there is an obvious federal role to be played in ensuring the smooth functioning of that system.  For example, the federal government has always seen to it that large, sparsely populated states are able maintain their expansive highway networks for the good of the national economy.

With this in mind, it should come as little surprise that the organization representing state transportation departments (AASHTO) believes that the federal government's involvement must continue.  As AASHTO representative Jack Basso recently remarked to Stateline, “The real question is can you maintain a national system, given the diversity and the breadth of geography in the country and the population situation, without some kind of national program? I think the answer is ‘No.’”

Unfortunately, while there appears to be a growing consensus that the gas tax should be extended, there's still a possibility that it will be "taken hostage" -- just like the debt ceiling and most of the Bush tax cuts were within the last year.  If that happens, it's very likely that the outcome of the current transportation debate will be much more skewed toward Norquist's priorities than would otherwise be the case.

Photo via Gage Skidmore Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Tax Dodgers in the Cross Hairs

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Congress, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Justice continue the attack against tax dodging, including schemes using offshore tax havens.


In Congress, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) has introduced the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which would strengthen the disclosure rules for foreign accounts and impose harsh penalties on taxpayers and tax shelter promoters who facilitate tax evasion.

Also in Congress, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) has offered an amendment that would crack down on the use of offshore tax havens by charities. In a hearing last year, Senators learned that the Boys and Girls Club of America was holding more than $50 million in offshore investments in order to avoid paying the tax that is usually imposed when charities engage in business activities that are not related to their mission.

Justice Department and IRS

Meanwhile, Zurich-based Credit Suise confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating its role in helping U.S. clients evade their tax obligation. The bank is the target of a criminal investigation prompted in part by information supplied to the Internal Revenue Service in its offshore account voluntary disclosure program.

Today, a Manhattan federal court unsealed an indictment charging a Swiss financial adviser with helping U.S. customers hide $184 million in assets from the IRS. The Swiss banking giant UBS is one of the banks where the adviser helped his clients hide their accounts.

In Virginia, a federal judge permanently barred HedgeLender LLC from promoting a tax shelter scheme called the HedgeLoan transaction. The Justice Department's Tax Division challenged the deals where clients purportedly pledged their appreciated stock for a "loan" to realize the cash without paying capital gains taxes.

In other tax dodging news, a U.S. Magistrate handed down a 28-month sentence to Rapper Ja Rule for failing to pay $1.1 million in taxes on the more than $3 million he earned in 2004-2006.

Small Business Owners

Some small business owners are also taking aim at tax dodging and tax havens. A recent op-ed from Business for Shared Prosperity argues that the opportunities that large corporations have for tax avoidance puts small businesses at an unfair disadvantage. It also points out that some of the most egregious corporate tax dodgers are those benefiting the most from public services and public investments that the rest of us pay for.

Photo via Mzrr1970 Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

How to Increase Tax Evasion and the Deficit in 1 Easy Step

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Despite the fact that the move would actually increase the deficit by an estimated $3.4 billion, House Republicans voted to slash the IRS’s budget by $600 million.

Unlike most types of public spending, increased funding of the IRS actually reduces the deficit. In some cases a dollar of additional IRS funding can generate $10 of revenue. Because of this, the non-partisan National Taxpayer Advocate noted in her recent report to Congress that the IRS should be viewed as not part of the deficit problem, but rather “as part of the solution.”

Taking this perspective, the Obama Administration proposed earlier this year to increase the IRS’s budget from $12.1 billion to $13.3 billion, in a move that was expected to actually reduce the deficit.

A $1.1 billion increase in funding would help the IRS reduce the “tax gap,” the difference between the amount of taxes owed and the amount of taxes actually paid on time. The tax gap is estimated to be between $400 to $500 billion each year.

One recent article points out that “the biggest losers” in the failure to stop tax evasion “are America's wage earners and salaried workers, who pay an estimated 99 percent of their taxes on time because their taxes are automatically withheld from their pay and reported by a third party, their employers.” These working people — the vast majority of Americans — must pay even more in taxes when others evade theirs.

Other than tax evaders, it’s unclear who the decrease in funding is supposed to benefit. It’s certainly not law-abiding businesses or individuals, who according to a report by the law and lobbying firm K&L Gates would actually face higher compliance costs if the cut in funding is enacted.

CTJ’s director, Bob McIntyre, addressed IRS enforcement a few years ago before the Senate Budget Committee. Just returning the IRS to the staffing levels of a decade ago, he said, would require a 50 percent increase in the IRS enforcement budget. Taking this a step further, McIntyre noted that, given the increase in tax sheltering in recent years, it may be necessary to double the resources for tax enforcement in order to keep up with tax evasion.

If lawmakers are serious about reducing the deficit, then reforming and dramatically increasing (rather than decreasing) funding for the IRS is one place to start.

Photo via alykat Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Senate Continues Battle Over Bill on Jobs, "Extenders," and Loophole-Closers

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Federal benefits for the long-term unemployed have been expired for over a week and the Senate still has not approved a bill (H.R. 4213) that would extend these and other vital measures. The bill also includes badly needed Medicaid funding for states and other provisions that would stimulate the economy. (See CTJ's recent reports on this legislation).

Call your Senators and urge them to vote for H.R. 4213.

Use this toll-free number provided by AFSCME to make your call: 888-340-6521

Part of the consternation among some Senators is that the spending provisions in the bill would add (modestly) to the deficit. Economists have explained that short-term deficit-financed spending measures can be used to effectively boost consumer demand, and thus job creation, during a recession, without adding to the long-term budget crisis.

Many of the Senators who have supported tax cuts that created long-term deficits (the kind of deficits that actually do lead away from fiscal sustainability) now oppose this bill out of their concern about "fiscal responsibility." Other Senators are more genuine in their concern about deficits but have wildly misplaced fears about a bill that has little, if anything, to do with our long-term budget situation.

A number of Senators are still concerned about the tax provisions in the bill. It includes an assortment of small tax cuts (mostly for business), which are often called the "tax extenders" by members of Congress and their staffs. While these tax breaks probably accomplish very little, the good news is that their cost would be offset with provisions that close unfair tax loopholes.

It's the Senators' devotion to maintaining these loopholes that is another factor slowing down progress on this bill.

Battle Continues Over "Carried Interest" Loophole for Investment Fund Managers

The most controversial tax provision would clamp down on the "carried interest" loophole, which allows investment fund managers to treat their earned income as capital gains and thus benefit from a much lower income tax rate. Over the past few weeks, some honest investment fund managers have spoken up to tell Congress that their loophole really is unjustified, and it was also reported that two Republican Senators favor closing the loophole.

The draft of the bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Reid already watered down this reform a great deal (compared to the version that passed the House) by allowing the lower capital gains rate to continue to apply to a larger portion of carried interest. As a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, the last thing Congress should do is weaken this provision any further.

Senators Defend the "John Edwards" Loophole

Another controversial reform would close the "John Edwards" loophole for "S corporations." Payroll taxes apply to wage income, but not other types of income. So, some people want to disguise their wage income as non-wage investment income to avoid payroll taxes. People who own S corporations have to determine (and tell the IRS) how much of their income is wage income and how much of it is other income, and of course there is a huge incentive to underestimate the amount that is wage income.

John Edwards famously played this trick by saying that his name was an asset and this asset, rather than his work, was generating most of the income of his S corporation.

Some Senators have expressed concern about the effect this reform would have on small businesses. But none have explained coherently why we should allow this type of scheme to continue.


No Tax on the $845 Million Sale of the Cubs? Why We Need the Economic Substance Law

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Yesterday a federal bankruptcy judge approved Sam Zell's Tribune Co. sale of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field to the Ricketts family, of TD Ameritrade, for $845 million. Everyone, including the bankruptcy judge, is calling it a "sale" except Sam Zell and his tax advisors. They're calling it a "leveraged partnership transaction," wherein Zell will retain a 5% interest and avoid paying the tax on the sale. Reporter Allan Sloan called Zell out on the tax dodge in Tuesday's Washington Post.

The Zell structuring of the Cubs sale is just another example of why we need the "economic substance" doctrine in the tax code. The economic substance doctrine has been developed over the years by the courts to disallow losses or deductions that have no economic substance apart from their tax benefits. In other words, if the only reason someone would do a deal a certain way is to avoid taxes, then the court ignores it and looks at the real underlying transaction. Clearly, a court looking at the Zell deal would find that it was, in substance, a sale of the Cubs to the Ricketts family. And Zell would owe millions of dollars of tax on the deal.

Unfortunately, different courts have developed different interpretations of the rule and courts do not apply the doctrine uniformly. That's why there have been repeated calls for strengthening the doctrine's basis in statute, including in President Obama's budget proposal. Tax avoidance transactions rely upon the interaction of highly technical provisions of the Internal Revenue Code to produce a tax result not contemplated by Congress. In developing the tax laws, Congress cannot possibly foresee all the ways the rules might be abused.

But tax lawyers figure it out for their wealthy clients -- at fees upwards of $500 per hour. If the economic substance doctrine is codified, taxpayers would be required to show that a transaction had a substantial non-tax purpose and had real economic consequences apart from the federal tax benefits. It would give the IRS a way to fight any tax avoidance scheme, whether or not the law specifically addressed it.

The American Society of CPAs recently wrote a letter to the Assistant Treasury Secretary for Tax Policy, Michael Mundaca, arguing against the rule's enactment (subscription required). To be fair, the letter raised a few good points that should be considered in crafting the final legislation. The letter is nonetheless a study in how self-interest can cloud one's perception. The big accounting firms might have a little more trouble selling their tax shelter deals if an economic substance rule is enacted into law. The IRS would be able to quickly challenge the next abusive tax shelters that tax professionals are surely already dreaming up.

Tax Day Bill Approved by the House Would End IRS's Use of Private Debt Collectors

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The House of Representatives approved a bill on "tax day" that would end the IRS's use of private debt collection agencies to locate unpaid taxes. The Taxpayer Assistance and Simplification Act of 2008 (H.R. 5719) would ban the federal government from entering into new contracts with the private collectors and the extension of the existing contracts with two companies. (A third company, a scandal-plagued firm based in Texas, was dropped from the program for reasons the IRS would not make public). Similar legislation was passed by the House last year but the Senate did not act.

The IRS's private debt collection program pays contractors a commission of 21 to 24 cents for every dollar of tax debt that they recover, while it's estimated that IRS employees can do the job for about 3 cents for every dollar collected. The private contractors are paid on a commission basis unlike IRS employees, so there is a concern among many that they have an incentive to be overly aggressive and less respectful of taxpayers' privacy rights.

In the Senate, Byron Dorgan (D-ND) has introduced legislation (S. 335), with 23 cosponsors, that would end the private debt collection program. However, the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Max Baucus (D-MT) has not yet acted, and the committee's ranking Republican, Charles Grassley (R-IA) has been particularly vocal about allowing the private debt collection companies, one of which is based in his state, to continue the work for IRS.

The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation have estimated that ending the private debt collection program will cost over half a billion dollars over a decade (since that's the net revenue the private companies would collect if allowed to continue). Of course IRS employees could collect much more for the same level of funding, but the budget "scoring" process does not treat funding for the IRS in a manner that accounts for the vast return on every dollar spent on tax collection.

As a result, the House had to come up with provisions that would raise revenue to offset the costs of the bill. One would require that people using money from a health savings account (HSA) provide more evidence that the money was used for a medical expense. HSAs, introduced as part of the Medicare prescription drug law in 2003, are accounts to which individuals can make tax-deductible contributions and which are connected with a high-deductible health insurance plan (plans with deductibles of at least $1,050 for an individual or $2,100 for a family). One fear health care advocates have about HSAs is that they will, over time, encourage healthier and wealthier people to leave the traditional health insurance market, which will make health insurance even less affordable for those at-risk workers and families who really need it. A fear tax fairness advocates have is that HSAs are just a way for better off people to shelter money from taxes. The deduction is worth the most to well-off families who will likely have health insurance with or without a tax incentive.

Another revenue-raising provision in the bill would close a tax loophole that is used by Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), which until last year was a subsidiary of Halliburton. As we explained a month ago, KBR used the loophole to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Social Security and Medicare taxes by pretending its Iraq-based employees are working for a Cayman-Islands based "shell company."

Both of these are provisions that would be worthy even if Congress was not trying to raise revenue and they make the overall bill even more praiseworthy. Predictably, the President has threatened again to veto any legislation that ends the private debt collection program, in line with a pattern of positions that choose the private sector over the public sector even in situations in which the latter is able to operate far more efficiently.

Often lost in the debate over whether taxes should be increased or decreased is the fact that we can raise some revenue by doing a better job of enforcing current tax laws. A report issued earlier this month by OMB Watch explains that a lack of funding for tax enforcement by the IRS is costing us money and contributing to the "tax gap," the difference between the amount of taxes owed and the amount actually paid each year. The IRS has estimated that in 2001, $345 billion in taxes due was not collected on time, and around $290 billion of that was never collected. This means that taxpayers who comply with the law are in effect subsidizing those who do not.

The report, Bridging the Gap: The Case for Increasing the IRS Budget explains that IRS staff have been cut back since 1995 and that cuts have been especially severe among the staff who perform audits. Partly as a result of this, the number of audits is down, particularly for those with incomes over $100,000 and for large corporations -- the very types of audits that usually uncover the most in unpaid taxes. The amount of time spent on each audit has decreased and the audits are less often uncovering unpaid taxes, even though the tax gap remains a major problem.

Meanwhile, the report explains, Congress has instructed the IRS to crack down on EITC recipients (even though incorrect EITC payments account for only 3 percent or less of the tax gap) and has funded a private debt collection program that doesn't collect nearly as much money as IRS staff can collect at a given funding level.

The report argues that this situation can be turned around by increased funding for IRS enforcement, improved quality of audits, eliminating private debt collection and focusing more on assisting low-income taxpayers so that they can avoid errors in the extremely complicated EITC application process. Congress should pay serious attention. Increasing the IRS budget is one of the few opportunities lawmakers have to immediately raise revenues by spending money.

House Votes to Kill IRS's Use of Private Debt Collectors

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The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to ban the IRS from using private debt collectors to help collect delinquent taxes after its current contracts with collection agencies expire in March 2008. The IRS's private debt collection program pays contractors a commission of 21 to 24 cents for every dollar of tax debt that they recover, while it's estimated that IRS employees can do the job for about 3 cents for every dollar collected. The private contractors are paid on a commission basis unlike IRS employees, so there is a concern among many that they have an incentive to be overly aggressive and less respectful of taxpayers' privacy rights.

The Senate Finance Committee has not taken up the private debt collection issue although there is a bill (S. 335) sponsored by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) to end the program. Meanwhile, the White House has threatened to veto the House bill (H.R. 3056) if enacted because it will cost the federal government revenues "that are otherwise not likely to be collected by the IRS."

This argument is ridiculous. The ten-year projected cost of the measure is just over $1 billion and that cost is offset in the bill with revenue-raising provisions. But the more fundamental point is that this measure should not be scored as costing anything at all. When Congress cuts back the tax enforcement staff at IRS, this reduction is not counted as a "cost" even though IRS personnel actually collect a lot more in taxes than do the private debt collectors. The private debt collection program seems driven by the ideology that the private sector always works better, even when the facts clearly state otherwise.

Would We Want a Firefighter to Have a Part-Time Job as an Arsonist?

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Top White House Economic Adviser Involved in Patenting Strategies to Avoid Taxes

Tax Notes, a trade journal for tax experts (sorry subscription required), reports that Edward Lazear, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, is named on a patent application for a product to help companies avoid taxes. The application was filed 10 months after Lazear began working at the White House.

The White House says that, essentially, Lazear's work on the product ended before he came to the White House. Whatever the case may be, it certainly highlights questions over whether tax strategies should be patentable at all. A patent reform bill in the House of Representatives includes provisions that ban patents on tax strategies. Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), chairman and ranking member of the Finance Committee, plan to craft a bill that would ban tax patents as well. A bill introduced by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Barack Obama (D-IL) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) in February to target offshore tax avoidance also bans tax patents.

As Levin pointed out when he introduced his bill, patent law exists to encourage innovation. There is no lack of innovation when it comes to avoiding taxes and there is certainly no public policy reason to encourage it.

House Committee Votes to End Outsourcing of Tax Collection

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The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill (H.R. 3056) on Wednesday that would end the IRS's use of private debt collectors after its current contracts with collection agencies expire in March 2008. The IRS's private debt collection program pays contractors a commission of 21 to 24 cents for every dollar of tax debt that they recover, while it's estimated that IRS employees can do the job for about 3 cents for every dollar collected. The private contractors are paid on a commission unlike IRS employees, so there is a concern among many that they have an incentive to be overly aggressive and less respectful of taxpayers' privacy rights, a concern echoed by Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate.

Unfortunately, earlier efforts to kill the program in an appropriation bill failed on procedural grounds. Part of problem stems from a peculiar wrinkle in the pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules that were revived earlier this year by Congress. Ending the private debt collection program counts as a "cost" to the federal government under these rules, since the private agencies are expected to collect over a billion dollars over the next decade if the program is allowed to continue. As a result, the Ways and Means bill just approved includes over a billion dollars of revenue-raising provisions to offset the "cost." The biggest offset would collect $764 million over ten years by making it harder for people to get out of paying their federal taxes by renouncing their U.S. citizenship.

But it's absurd that killing the private debt collection program should have to be paid for. Cutting funds for traditional tax collection by the IRS is not counted as a "cost" under budget rules that Congress has to offset with revenue-raising provisions. And traditional tax collectors at the IRS bring in a whole lot more money than these private contractors ever will. The legislative recommendations made by the National Taxpayer Advocate in January start out by noting that on a budget of just over $10 billion the IRS manages to collect over two trillion dollars, a return-on-investment of about 210 to one.

In the Senate, a bill (S. 335) sponsored by Byron Dorgan (D-ND) would end the private debt collection program, but it's not clear when this bill will be considered.

House Appropriators to Pull the Plug on Outsourcing Tax Collection

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The House Appropriations Committee approved the "Financial Services" spending bill last week, which includes funding for the IRS and other agencies within the Treasury, as well as for the District of Columbia and several other agencies. Notably, the bill includes language that limits funding of tax debt collection by private collection agencies to $1 million, effectively killing the IRS's practice of outsourcing tax collection.

The IRS's private debt collection program pays private contractors a commission of 21 to 24 cents for every dollar of tax debt that they recover, while it's estimated that IRS employees can do the job for about 3 cents for every dollar collected. The private contractors are paid on a commission unlike IRS employees, so there is a concern among many that they have an incentive to be overly aggressive and less respectful of taxpayers' privacy rights, a concern echoed by Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate.

Tax Day in Congress

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House of Representatives Uses Tax Day to Approve Taxpayer Protections

The U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 1677, the Taxpayer Protection Act of 2007, on Tuesday, Tax Day. As we've explained before, the bill includes several provisions geared towards protecting taxpayers from fraud, identity theft, and predatory banks offering refund anticipation loans (RALs) which often come with interest rates around 90 percent. Interestingly, a provision preventing the IRS from handing over information about people's tax debt to such predatory banks was opposed vigorously by Jackson Hewitt, the tax preparation company, when the bill was in committee. In the past two weeks, the Department of Justice has been trying to shut down around 125 Jackson Hewitt offices in which the owners are accused of fostering an environment "in which fraudulent tax return preparation is encouraged and flourishes."

Congress Mulls Several Proposals to Protect Taxpayer Rights

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Members of Congress are currently considering a series of proposals meant to strengthen taxpayer rights. The latest of these, the "Taxpayer Protection Act of 2007" (H.R. 1677) was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee before it adjourned for the Congressional recess. It includes provisions that would

- prevent the IRS from giving third parties information about taxpayers' tax debts,
- require the IRS to notify taxpayers in cases where identify theft may have occurred,
- notify taxpayers that they may be eligible for the EITC,
- clarify rules that prevent deceptive use of the IRS's name (targeting websites like that people may believe belong to the IRS itself.)

Of particular note is the provision preventing the IRS from sharing tax debt information with predatory banks marketing refund anticipation loans (RALs). The IRS and some members of the committee argue that it would actually be in the taxpayers' interest to provide banks information helping them to determine whether a taxpayer is likely to repay a loan, and that without this information the interest rate on such loans could be higher to reflect that lack of certainty about repayment. But the provision targets those that are "predatory," which is not defined in the legislation. RALs sometimes have an interest rate around 90 percent.

We Should Be Able to File Our Taxes Online Easily & Without Paying a Tax Preparation Firm

Another taxpayer rights-related bill (S. 1074) has been introduced in the Senate by Daniel Akaka (D-HI) to create a single internet portal that can be used to file taxes online directly with the IRS for free. Currently people who file online must use the services of one of several companies that charge a fee for those with incomes above $52,000 and which subject users to advertisements for other products.

Outsourcing of Tax Collection in Congress's Crosshairs

A third bill in the area of taxpayer rights is the legislation introduced in the House and Senate (H.R. 695/S. 335) that would end the IRS's use of private debt collectors. The program pays private contractors a commission of 21 to 24 cents for every dollar of tax debt that they recover, while it's estimated that IRS employees can do the job for about 3 cents for every dollar collected. Since the private contractors are paid on a commission unlike IRS employees, there is a concern among many that they have an incentive to be overly aggressive and less respectful of taxpayers' privacy rights, a concern echoed by Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate. If you haven't already, send your members of Congress a quick email in support of the legislation to end this program.

This year our federal tax forms are incredibly confusing, but it's not the IRS's fault, and it's not something that is going to be solved with the latest regressive "flat tax" plan. Rather, this year's tax filing confusion is caused by the previous Congress, which in the months before the Republicans lost power, procrastinated as long as possible before extending several tax deductions and credits. At that point it was too late for the IRS to include these deductions and credits on the tax forms, which were already printed and distributed. (To be honest, Citizens for Tax Justice has never been fond of these particular tax provisions, the "tax extenders," but we'd rather they be enacted permanently or not at all, as opposed to having Congress revisit them every couple years and spending endless amounts of time that could be applied to more pressing matters.)

Let's say you have kids in college. The general instructions say that the tuition deduction is expired but may have been extended and refers you to the IRS's web site. The 1040 (printed and on-line) has nothing about the tuition deduction. If you go to the website and look under "What's Hot" you find not a word about the tuition deduction. If you search further you can find information about changes in tax laws that apply and you discover that to take the tuition deduction, you go to line 35, which is for something called the "domestic production activities deduction" and write a "T" on the line if you're taking the tuition deduction. If you happen to be taking the domestic production activities deduction and the tuition deduction, you write "B" on the line for "both." Similar instructions are given for those taking the educator expenses deduction, the DC first-time homebuyer credit and the state and local sales tax deduction.

The good news is that this confusion could create support for tax reform and simplication. The bad news is that a lot of the plans peddled as "tax simplification" do not focus on simplification, but rather remove the progressive rates which have nothing to do with this confusion. (Tax tables are provided to tell you how much you actually owe after you work through all these deductions and credits). Our current President has persuaded Congress to enact six tax break bills in six years ... but none have simplified our tax code. Broad tax reform might be a good idea ... in 2009.

CTJ Online Letter Campaign Aims to End IRS Use of Private Collection Agencies

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CTJ Online Letter Campaign

Citizens for Tax Justice has begun a letter campaign targeting Congress in support of legislation to end the IRS's use of private collection agencies to locate delinquent taxpayers, which began last fall. Click here to send your members of Congress a letter in support of these bills, which have been introduced by Representative Van Hollen (D-MD) in the House and Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) in the Senate.

One problem with the program is that the private collectors receive a commission of 21 to 24 cents for each dollar they collect, while IRS employees could do the same work for just 3 cents for every dollar collected. It is also feared that the private debt collectors, driven by large profits, will have a greater incentive than IRS employees to violate the privacy rights of taxpayers in order to increase collections.

Congress May End IRS's Use of Private Debt Collectors

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Two Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, Steve Rothman (D-NY) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) have introduced a bill that would end the IRS's program using private companies to assist in collecting delinquent taxes. This comes after Nina Olsen, the National Taxpayer Advocate, who heads an independent office within the IRS, called upon Congress to end the private collection program in her annual report. The problem is that the private collectors receive a commission of 21 to 24 cents for each dollar they collect, while it's argued that IRS employees could do the same work for just 3 cents for every dollar collected. IRS Commissioner Mark Everson admitted last year that the IRS staff could collect these debts for less cost but said that the agency lacked the funding to do so.

Congress needs a mechanism in its budget process to recognize the increase in revenues that will result from any boost given to IRS enforcement, which only shows up in the budget as a spending increase. This is a problem that comes up in the debate over closing the Tax Gap. One of the suggestions Bob McIntyre offered for closing the Tax Gap in his testimony before the Senate Budget Committee last week was to simply to increase funding for IRS enforcement. The IRS estimates that somewhere between $5 and $30 could be collected for every new dollar of funding for enforcement.

Thank you for visiting Tax Justice Blog. CTJ and ITEP staff will soon retire this domain. But ITEP staff are still blogging! You can find the same level of insight and analysis and select Tax Justice Blog archives at our new blog,

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