Congressional Tax-Writers Examine Corporate Tax Reform, Pass-Through Entities — and How Tax Restructuring Might Boost Growth and Job Creation
As part of broader policy debates in Washington about boosting U.S. competitiveness and making the tax code simpler and flatter, the House and Senate tax committees this week both held hearings relating to tax restructuring.
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony focused on corporate tax reform, including the economic costs of eliminating tax “expenditures” in order to offset the cost of a lower overall rate. A day later, the House Ways and Means Committee examined how tax and accounting policies affect closely-held businesses — including high compliance costs and tax rates generally imposed on such businesses — as well as how tax restructuring might improve closely-held businesses’ ability to grow and create jobs.
Closely held businesses utilize a pass-through business model (e.g., S corporation, partnership, limited liability company [LLC] or sole proprietorship), in which taxes are paid through the owners’ personal income tax returns. According to a report by Ernst and Young, America’s pass-through businesses reported 36 percent of all net business income, but paid 44 percent of all federal business income taxes.
Upon opening Wednesday’s hearing, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) said, “This committee should ask when it is appropriate to tax business income on a pass-through basis and when, if ever, it is appropriate to subject business income to entity-level taxation.” He added, “Given the importance of pass-through entities to the U.S. economy and the prevalence of closely-held businesses, the treatment of these job creators is critical to tax reform. Our goal with comprehensive tax reform remains clear: to create an environment that is ripe for economic growth and job creation.”
Witnesses at the House hearing included tax lawyer Stef Tucker (Venable LLP) of The Roundtable’s Tax Policy Advisory Committee (TPAC), as well as academics, economists, and a representative of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. (download Tucker's testimony)
Tucker outlined four basic concepts for reforming the taxation of closely-held businesses, noting that such reform could help reduce taxpayer expenditures (including human capital costs associated with tax compliance):
(1) access to and accretion of capital
(2) protecting business owners’ personal assets from business risk
(3) protecting the business and personnel
(4) providing for business succession, without without expending significant dollars or human capital when dealing with the Internal Revenue Code.
With the Administration introducing a framework to place higher taxes on pass-through entities to pay for a corporate rate reduction, the taxation of pass-through entities will be a major battle within tax reform — and the definition of what constitutes a “small business” will likely play a significant role in that debate.
Two weeks ago, the White House and Treasury released a five-point “framework” for business tax reform that would eliminate or reduce dozens of credits, deductions, “loopholes,” and subsidies in order to broaden the corporate tax base and offset the cost of cutting the top corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent (Roundtable Weekly, Feb. 24). Not surprisingly, the revenue raisers in the Administration’s plan include a tax hike on partnership “carried interest” — which would disproportionately affect the nation’s roughly 1.2 million commercial real estate partnerships.
Commercial real estate would be affected by the Administration’s tax reform proposals in several ways:
• Significantly higher taxes on “carried interest” income, which would now be treated as regular income (subject to a top tax rate of 39.6%) vs. capital gain (subject to a 15% rate)
• CRE firms utilizing pass-through ownership structures would lose widely-used business tax provisions such as accelerated depreciation, interest deductions, the research tax credit and the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) — without a corresponding benefit of lower corporate tax rates
If the 2001-2003 (Bush) tax cuts are allowed to expire at year-end, many pass-through business owners (including commercial property owners) would also see their individual tax rates rise, since pass-through business income is subject to the tax rates faced by individual owners.
Although The Roundtable agrees with key tax policymakers that the 35 percent corporate tax rate is too high — and that it hurts U.S. competitiveness — this area of taxation must not be “de-coupled” from issues of individual taxation, which apply to millions of small business owners (including many in commercial real estate). Although it is admittedly more difficult to address corporate and individual taxation together, this is the only way to avoid picking “winners” and “losers” in our economy and undermining broader efforts to move the recovery forward.
The Roundtable also opposes efforts to offset the cost of a corporate rate reduction by simply eliminating tax breaks (“expenditures”) used by C corporations or pass-through entities.
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