BREAKING: Congress Does Something--Pushes $127 Billion in Tax Breaks

The Fiscal Times
5 Years of Over $100 Billion in Improper Payments
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5 Years of Over $100 Billion in Improper Payments

In a clear sign that Congress remains light years away from tax reform, the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday approved a bill to renew a grab-bag of tax provisions and loopholes that cost the Treasury billions of dollars annually and help a wide array of special interests, businesses and families. 

The tax breaks and credits cover not only corporate research and development, alternative and renewable energy and mass transit, but also major corporate land transactions, movie and TV production, NASCAR track operations and race horse owners. 

Related: Senate Democrats Push a Hodge-Podge of Tax Measures

These dozens of tax credits have never been permanent in the federal tax code, but instead have been repeatedly granted temporary extension over the years, which is why they’re known on Capitol Hill as “tax extenders.” 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the new chairman of the Finance Committee, had signaled recently  that he wasn’t going to tolerate business as usual, and was determined to scale back some of these expiring provisions to save the government money. By the time the dust settled yesterday, however, the committee had reauthorized all of the existing tax breaks – and threw in a few new ones for good measure. Members did it by voice vote, so that their names were not directly linked to this massive tax giveaway.

The two year price tag of the package is roughly $127 billion in lost revenue.

“Talk about taking wind out the tax reform sails,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government spending watchdog group. “Speaking of which, the wind production tax credit got added back. This is a very inauspicious start to comprehensive tax reform in the new Chairman Wyden era.”

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, added her voice of disappointment to the tax reform backtracking by Wyden and the committee:

"There is a tremendous amount of time, energy and money going into protecting special tax breaks with very little attention to paying for the costs,” she said in a statement. “What this country should be doing is overhauling the disaster of a tax code to make us more competitive, grow the economy and reduce the debt. Instead we are seeing Washington at its very worst as special interests and members of Congress run to protect their favorite tax breaks." 

Wyden found himself on the defensive and promised that this would be the last time these provisions were reauthorized without a major rewrite in the tax code. 

Related: Dave Camp, Tax Warrior, Makes Last Stand on Reform

“By passing this bill, the Finance Committee has put an expiration date on the status quo,” he said. “The stop and go nature of these tax extenders contributes to the lack of certainty and predictability….  But it makes no sense to let these incentives disappear without a comprehensive reform proposal to replace them when jobs, innovation and research, and people's homes are on the line.”

The next stop for the extenders is the Senate floor, where members will have to go on record next week for or against the multi-billion-dollar tax package. Assuming the bill is approved, it then goes to the House, where Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) is trying to push through genuine comprehensive tax reform before he retires at the end of the year.

So what’s in the Senate Finance Committee package?  Here are many of the two-year provisions, as compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense:

Related: Obama Looks to Tax Reform to Save America’s Highways   

  • Tax Credits for research and experimentation. Companies that have benefited from this provision include Microsoft Corp., Boeing Co., United Technologies Corp., Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Harley-Davidson. Estimated cost: $6 billion over two years. 
  • Tax break for reducing mortgage debt on a principal residence. Estimated cost: $3.48 billion over two years.  
  • First-year corporate property depreciation deduction. Estimated cost $81.7 billion. 
  • Real property expenses purchased in the conduct of business. Estimated cost $19.3 billion over two years. 

Related: America’s Top Five Tax Breaks 

  • Mortgage insurance premiums deductions on qualified residence. Estimated cost $1.06 billion over two years. 
  • Deduction for state and local sales taxes. Estimated cost $3.38 billion over two years.
  • Deduction for tuition and related expenses. Estimated cost $359 million over two years. 
  • Tax-free distributions from individual retirement plans for charitable purposes. Estimated cost $881 million over two years. 
  • New markets tax credit for investments in corporations or partnerships. Estimated cost: $7 million over two years. 
  • Railroad track maintenance credit. Estimated cost $279 million over two years.  
  • Three-year cost recovery benefit for certain race horses. Kentucky Derby horses are three-year-olds. Then they make a lot more money in stud fees. Estimated cost $97 million over two years.

Related: Tax Reform Proposal Divides Republicans 

  • A $1 per gallon tax credit for biodiesel, as well as the small agro-biodiesel producer credit of 10 cents per gallon. Estimated cost $2.6 billion over 10 years. 
  • Work opportunity tax credit for employers hiring disadvantaged people. Estimated cost $1.4 billion over two years.
  • 15-year cost recovery for restaurant, and retail building upgrades. Estimated cost $340 million over two years.
  • Credit for Plug-in Electric Motorcycles. Estimated cost $2 million over ten years.  
  • Rebate on rum excise taxes imposed on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Estimated cost $310 million over two years.
  • A 30 percent investment tax credit for alternative vehicle refueling property, which includes fuel pumps for ethanol, biodiesel, liquefied hydrogen, and compressed or liquefied natural gas. Estimated cost $8 million over 10 years. 
  • A production tax credit for cellulosic biofuel production facilities, allowing claims of a $1.01 per gallon production tax credit. Estimated cost $55 million over 10 years.

Here are some of the provisions excluded from the original markup that have been added back in before final passage: 

  • Credit for nonbusiness energy property. Estimated cost $1.005 billion over two years. 
  • Credits for producing energy from certain renewable resources. Estimated cost $191 million.
  • Seven-year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complexes. Estimated cost $15 million.
  • Energy efficient commercial buildings deduction.Estimated cost $282 million.
  • Special expensing rules for certain film, television, and theatrical productions.Estimated cost $424 million. 
  • Modification of work opportunity tax credit. Estimated cost $1.575 billion. 

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