Tag: IRS

After Documentary, Scientology’s Tax-Exempt Earnings Attracting Attention

August 3rd, 2015 — 1:46pm
Scientology's Tax Exempt Earnings Under Scrutiny

Scientology’s Tax Exempt Earnings Under Scrutiny

The Church of Scientology is getting a lot of attention these days thanks to “Going Clear”, HBO’s recent documentary on Scientology and a number of its practices. One aspect of Scientology which is receiving even more attention than before is the church’s tax-exempt status. Part of the controversy extends to how the Church of Scientology actually received its tax-exempt status—and to just what ends it uses it. After being hit with over 2,400 lawsuits at once from Scientologists, the IRS, after years of rejecting Scientology’s requests for a change in their tax status, gave it tax exemptions typically applied towards churches in 1993.

Tax Exemptions All Around

While the Church of Scientology hasn’t issued a clear response to questions raised by the documentary, one thing that’s definitely not in question is whether Scientology is making use of its tax-exempt status. Fortune’s Chris Matthews, citing the Scientology news website The Scientology Money Project, estimates that the Church of Scientology is worth somewhere in the area of $1.75 billion, with most of that money wrapped up in real estate. About 70% of that real estate is tax-exempt, meaning that a change in tax could possibly land the church a tax bill of $20 million or so a year.

Matthews cites a number of different sources which make a compelling case that Scientology uses its tax-exemption in ways that are clearly commercial, with examples such as a Tampa Bay Times investigation from 2010 which discovered that Scientology had not been paying a 5% occupancy tax for years. It turns out that Scientologists visiting the head offices in Clearwater were staying at hotels owned by Scientology without paying the tax. It is cases such these, now becoming increasingly visible as more similar stories emerge, that are keeping the debate surrounding Scientology’s tax-exempt status alive in the public.

Against the Public Interest?

In a recent interview with The Wrap, Alex Gibney, the director of Going Clear, noted that the main argument against Scientology losing its tax-exempt status was not predicated on whether or not it’s a “real” church, but rather that Scientology wields its tax-exempt status in order to pursue policies which are not in the public interest. In his documentary alleging that people working for the Church of Scientology often earn as little as 40 cents an hour and accusing the Church of illegal imprisonment and torture at the highest levels, Gibney’s central argument departs from the usual tack: that Scientology isn’t a real religion. Gibney argues instead that the religion is a public threat.

While tax exemption is hard to get, it’s also extremely hard to lose, and the IRS will require a great deal of proof of the claims like those made in the documentary and those from former church members who see themselves as victims of a cult. The Church of Scientology reportedly keeps files on all its members to use against them in case they leave the church, making getting that proof even more difficult than it otherwise would be. The evidence presented in Going Clear is damning, but it hasn’t cost Scientology its tax-exempt status—yet.

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Wondering What to Do with Your Tax Refund? Invest It!

June 3rd, 2015 — 3:48pm
Invest Your Tax Refund & Get The Most Bang For Your Buck

Invest Your Tax Refund & Get The Most Bang For Your Buck

As the tax filing deadline of April 15th has come and gone, many of us are giving big sighs of relief that it’s all over—at least for now. If you were lucky enough to get some money back this tax season, you’re probably wondering what to do with it. Shopping spree? Vacation? While those ideas certainly sound like fun, the truth is that you’ll be best off investing it. After all, it’s not found money—it was your money to begin with. Look at your tax refund as the contents of a kind of rigidly enforced savings account and do something worthwhile with it that will pay off down the road. Check out these savvy investment ideas to make your tax refund work for you.

Plan to Save

Many Americans seem to heed the call of the savings account, with three out of 10 people planning to save or invest their tax refund this year. Before you dump your refund into your savings, though, decide what you are saving for: set a goal. This will help you determine which investments are best for you. Do you want to invest money for a rainy day slush fund? Perhaps that dream vacation you’ve always wanted? Are you looking to make a large purchase, such as a house, car or motorcycle? Is retirement on the horizon? Take stock of your current financial situation and then decide where your money would be best spent down the road. Once you do, you’ll know exactly what to save for.

Pay Down Some Debt

Let’s assume you got back between $3,000 and $4,000 from the government after tax day. Lucky you! The very first thing you should do is pay down some of your credit card debt or sock some away into your emergency fund. If you’re looking to grow investments but you are losing just as much in credit card or student loan interest, a strategy to invest all of your return doesn’t really make sense, says US News and World Report. Putting money in an emergency fund is a safe bet. For example, the $1,000 you put in now will still be worth the same later when you need to take it out—or more, if your emergency fund is held in such a way that it accrues interest. Your best bet for these accounts are high-yield savings and money markets.

Add to Your 401(k)

Looking into the future and thinking long-term, you can really make the most of your return by contributing some of it to your 401(k) so you can take advantage of your employer’s maximum match. Those who are building a retirement account would be wise to open a Roth IRA using their refund money to ensure a tax-sheltered source of income. Educational plans, such as 529 accounts, are also a great idea. If you open up these types of accounts with your refund money, it can make the process that much easier. Plus, contributions to Roth IRAs can be deducted from next year’s taxes, making next year’s return all the sweeter.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs Into One Basket

Placing one big chunk of change into one stock isn’t your best bet. You’re better off diversifying instead and adding funds to your current investments. If you want to add to your portfolio, you may want to try a specialty bond or stock fund, which will satisfy your urge to take a fun risk yet won’t present you with the looming threat of losing it all if the stock market tanks.

Whether you decide to add to your current portfolio or invest in your 401(k), making an investment with your tax return now instead of blowing it all on a vacation will pay off in the long run.

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Native American Tribes, with Tax-Free Advantage in Mind, Consider the Recreational Marijuana Industry

June 2nd, 2015 — 1:40pm
Legalized Marijuana Could Be A Boon to Native Americans

Legalized Marijuana Could Be A Boon to Native Americans

With growth from the gaming industry leveling off in most locations, many Native American tribes are now considering a brand new source of income in states where marijuana has been legalized, either medically and recreationally. As more and more states–including New York–legalize marijuana in one form or another, Native Americans will have a huge advantage over other retailers in the business: Tribal earnings are not subject to federal income tax laws, as long as they are earned on the reservation and are not distributed to individuals as earnings.

The Native American Tax Advantage

The advantages that would be enjoyed by Native American tribes for the sale of marijuana would be similar to the tax-exempt status they already enjoy in those states where gaming is conducted on reservations. 422 tribal gambling facilities in 28 different states earned $26.5 billion, $27.9 billion, and $28 billion from 2011 through 2013, none of which was taxable by the federal government.

Even if commercial activities are conducted on tribal lands, they are exempt from taxes, as long as they are not conducted by individuals. Individuals within the tribes are U.S. citizens and they can be taxed, which is why corporations are usually formed before embarking on a gaming enterprise, and why the same would likely be true of the marijuana business. The legal status of the corporation prevents any federal intervention or taxation on the income from gaming currently, and barring legislation that alters this status the same would be true of income generated from growing and selling legal marijuana.

Tribes must be careful, however, not to distribute earnings from gaming or marijuana sales to individuals as compensation for their work in the industry. These earnings can be taxed, but there is another federal law which comes to the individual tribe members’ aid in this situation. Earnings can be distributed to individuals as payments from a general welfare program that is earmarked for the needs of families and individuals, relative to health, food, and other essentials that are not related to compensation for services.

State Tax Laws

At the state level, Native Americans cannot be taxed on income that is generated from reservation resources unless that income is generated within the state but not within the boundaries of the reservation. In effect, this neutralizes attempts by state agencies to levy any kind of tax on the potential earnings of Native Americans from either gaming or marijuana growing. Marijuana grown on the reservation would thus be completely un-taxable in any state where it is grown.

As one might expect, this kind of exemption makes both the federal government and state governments very uneasy, and inclined to eye the legislation which currently grants such sweeping freedom from taxation very closely. As Native American enterprises begin entering the preliminary phases of entering the retail marijuana market and the media notes the enormous taxation advantages they would enjoy, federal agencies and state agencies are both taking hard looks at the situation.

It is hard to estimate exactly how lucrative the marijuana growing industry could be for Native Americans, but assuming it is on par with the gaming industry, a huge windfall would accrue to tribes all across the country. Some experts feel so strongly that they’ve said that growing marijuana could eventually eclipse the gaming industry as a source of income, and for tribes that have precious few sources of income on reservations, the allure of huge profits is likely to be overwhelming.

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What NOT to Do on Your Taxes

May 7th, 2015 — 11:28am
Mistakes to avoid on your taxes

Mistakes to avoid on your taxes

Filing taxes is a painstaking process for almost everyone and every year, without fail, many returns full of mistakes are sent in to the IRS. In fact, mistakes are extremely common on tax returns, with an error rate of 50 percent; on self-prepared returns, according to the Government Accountability Office. There is a near-infinite number of things that can be done wrong on tax returns, from simple computational errors to missing out on deductions. Knowing which mistakes people commonly make is a good place to start when trying to avoid making them yourself. To that end, here’s what not to do on your taxes.

Include Undocumented Charitable Contributions

Though many charitable contributions are deductible, not every donation qualifies, and those that do must be meticulously documented. Every donation requires an accurate record, complete with confirmation receipts of the donation amount from the recipient at a qualified charity. Many people now donate money to crowdfunding campaigns, such as those hosted through Kickstarter, but many of these, because donors receive goods or services in return, don’t qualify as charitable contributions.

Taking a Write-Off for College You Don’t Qualify For

There are currently two write-offs available for college education: a $4,000 tuition and fees deduction and the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit. Most people take the tuition and fees deduction because it seems like more money, but because the AOTC gives a dollar-for-dollar reduction, as opposed to lowering the income subject to tax, it can often be a better deal. It’s worth crunching some numbers to figure out which is the better option for you each time you file.

Claiming State Refunds as Income

Many people make the mistake of claiming their state tax refunds as income on federal tax returns. The only time a state tax refund should be declared is if the filer does not receive a tax benefit from deducting the taxes. Taking a standard deduction as opposed to itemizing means the filer doesn’t need to show state tax refunds as income.

Confusing Real Estate Taxes

Confusion regarding real estate and other property is one of the biggest sources of tax mistakes. People often take the wrong deductions, on everything from home offices to mortgage interest payments. New homeowners should be particularly careful and make sure to check which taxes they paid during closing to ensure they apply for the accurate deductions on their returns.

Forgetting IRA Savings

Throughout the year many people make regular IRA contributions, but they often forget to report them when filing their tax returns. Many of these IRA contributions qualify individuals for tax breaks. Furthermore, reporting all contributions is mandatory and even nondeductible contributions should be reported in order to avoid paying for them during retirement.

Incorrectly Reporting Foreign Investments

Though foreign investments are only applicable to a relatively small percentage of the tax base, they are amongst the more costly areas to make mistakes. Failing to accurately report foreign bank or financial accounts unintentionally carries a penalty of $10,000 per violation. For willful violations, the fine is $100,000 or 50 percent of the balance of the unreported account at the time of violation, for each violation, if the IRS catches it in an audit. That’s a very expensive mistake!

Changing Jobs and Withholding Too Much/Too Little

Those who switch jobs during the middle of the year and have combined earnings of greater than $117,000 should make sure they are not having extra money withheld. The maximum withholding rate is 6.2% for the first $117,000 of income, but both employers may withhold this amount if the employee made less than that sum at each individual company, meaning the filer would pay too much. It might make for a nice, big tax return, but it also means you’re overpaying on your taxes, and no one wants that.  On the flip-side, if you switch jobs or get promoted and withhold too little, you could be surprised you owe taxes come April 15th when you were expecting a refund.

Overpaying on Investments Sold

Making mistakes on investments sold is frequent as it requires many calculations and meticulous record keeping of stock splits, reinvested dividends, capital gains distributions, and sales commissions. There are several online tools available to help investors make accurate calculations of shares bought. Make sure to keep clear records of all your investments.

These are just a few of the things you absolutely shouldn’t do on your taxes. While it’s by no means an exhaustive list, these mistakes are some of the most frequent—and also some of the easiest to avoid. If you’re concerned that you’ve made mistakes (or will make mistakes) on your taxes, you can always contact an R&G Brenner tax professional for assistance.

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The Only Two Countries to Tax Citizens Living Abroad? The United States and China

March 23rd, 2015 — 4:00pm
Will U.S & China Remain The Only Nations To Tax Their Citizen Abroad?

Will U.S. & China Remain The Only Nations To Tax Their Citizen Abroad?

Of all the sovereign nations on the planet, there are only two that tax their citizens’ income earned while living abroad: the United States and, perhaps surprisingly, China. Most countries ascribe to the philosophy that taxation should be primarily national rather than global, but both the United States and China require their citizens living abroad to pay domestic taxes on income earned worldwide. Since these two countries agree on little else, it’s worth taking a look at why each country favors this policy.

Why the U.S. Taxes Citizens Living Abroad

The standard justification for the long-running policy imposed by the United States is that it deters tax evasion by its citizens and ensures that all of them pay for the benefits that come with their citizenship; many of which they still receive while living abroad. With these funds being used to help pay the enormous costs associated with running the government, even those citizens living abroad are therefore significant contributors to the federal budget. Economists globally debate the fairness of taxing citizens and companies overseas, arguing that citizens in another country can’t make use of state-run healthcare or social welfare programs while also promoting exports.

Benefits to China from Taxing Citizens Living Abroad

China’s government implemented sweeping economic changes in the early 1990’s in an effort to modernize its federal tax system, which had fallen into a dreadful state of confusion and inefficiency. After evaluating the systems in place around the world, especially those employed by the global superpowers, China’s political leaders decided to adopt the model then in use by the United States.

Strangely, after adopting this policy China then declined to actually enforce it among citizens living around the world. In response to criticism, political leaders contended that resources in the federal agency charged with levying and collecting taxes were simply insufficient to meet the requirements for tracking down all those living beyond the country’s borders. In addition, the relevant earnings data from private employers was seldom available to provide a basis for taxation.

That will all change in 2015, however. Now the State Administration of Taxation (SAT) insists that all income earned abroad must be accounted for right alongside domestic earnings, and that China’s government will no longer tolerate evasion of taxes. One of the chief reasons for the about-face on the enforcement of the rules seems attributable to the fact that the country has a greatly increased need for revenue to fuel its economic growth.

How China’s SAT Will Enforce Taxation Abroad

One of the past obstacles to tax enforcement abroad was that necessary tax data was lacking on citizens’ overseas investments and earnings. Early in 2015, taxation officials met with executives from more than 150 of China’s largest corporations to inform them that it would require information on their employees’ earnings while living abroad. In this way, one of the loopholes of the system has been tightened up to make the system more enforceable.

The SAT also plans to reign in some of the huge overseas investments made by billionaire Chinese individuals and corporations, which it deems to be no more than shelters designed to subvert the taxation process. In prior years, it was common practice for wealthy Chinese businessmen to make foreign investments through specially created companies to protect income. Corrupt officials who have fled overseas to escape this new level of zeal by tax officials may now be caught in the net of taxation reform.

Chinese officials have been negotiating quietly with financial and political officials in the U.S. and other countries where its citizens have been living abroad in order to be granted access to information on earned income and bank account data. With this data, another missing link would be supplied and the SAT would then be much better informed about taxable income.

Potential Influence on Other Nations

Up to now, European countries have resisted adoption of the citizenship-based taxation model for those living abroad, because these countries felt that their foreign citizens received few of the benefits of citizenship. With global economies now slowing, it is entirely conceivable that more countries around the world will begin to adopt this same model of taxation.

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The Most Important Tax Issues to Focus on This Year, According to the Experts

February 23rd, 2015 — 4:06pm
The Most Important 2015 Tax Issues

The Most Important 2015 Tax Issues

Taxes are never a fun process, and there can be a great deal of confusion about how much to pay or how to get the most money back. With tax season in full swing, many people are finding themselves lost in a flurry of financial advice that’s hitting them from all directions and it’s difficult to sort through all the noise. Here’s some advice from tax experts about what issues they consider the most important tax issues of 2015:

Review New Tax Rules

Every tax-paying family or individual has a unique situation and the only way to know how the code will affect each unique situation is by taking time to look at the new regulations. Among the issues that could affect families is the change to flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs). While in 2013 money could be rolled over from the prior year, in 2014 carrying over the money makes one ineligible to participate in the HSA for 2015. There are also several other adjustments to consider regarding capital gains, deductions, and an alternative minimum tax.

Don’t Miss Out on Free Money

Believe it or not, there’s a good deal of free money going around, and it’s yours for the taking. Private wealth-manager George Papadopoulos has several suggestions for where people can get this free money, including participating in their employer’s retirement plan, using company insurance policies and employee stock-purchase plans, and taking advantage of credit card promotions.

For company retirement plans, make sure you are contributing enough to get all of the matching funds, which will also allow participants to enjoy the growing tax-deferred funds in future years. The health insurance plans offered by companies have a number of advantages, frequently offering flexible spending accounts for health and child care as well as health savings accounts. Stock-purchase plans can help employees purchase stocks at 10-15% below the market value, putting capital gain directly into the employees’ paychecks. Credit card promotions are a great way to collect free cash for every dollar spent, but make sure to choose carefully.

Consider Moving Certain Assets to Non-taxable Accounts

Where one is keeping their assets can also play a large role in how much they are paying or not paying in taxes. For instance, the government taxes bonds and stocks at different rates. Dividends and long-term capital gains are taxed at the relatively reasonable rate of 15%, while nearly all interest income is taxed at regular income tax rates, which can reach up to 35%. That’s why doing some shifting around and moving fixed-income assets to nontaxable accounts can minimize the amount of tax expenditures to which you’re exposed. Money in nontaxable accounts is also harder to access, but it’s important to consider moving assets to nontaxable accounts, as it could lead to significant savings.

Maximizing Roth IRA Savings

If you don’t have one already, a Roth IRA allows you to save for retirement in a nontaxable account as long as you meet certain guidelines. One of the ways to take advantage is to contribute the maximum you can every year. Use these contributions to focus on stock options, opting first for high-quality dividend growth stocks. Converting funds from a traditional IRA or 401(k) often allows people to pay less in taxes, though it’s important to plan out as the year of conversion will include the amount converted as part of taxable income. Finding out the specific details for how to save using Roth IRA is the best place to start.

For more information about the above topics and more, please contact an R&G Brenner tax professional today!

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Getting to Know Your W-2 Form

February 9th, 2015 — 4:28pm
Getting To Know Your w2

Getting To Know Your w2

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires all employers to provide employees with a W-2 form, which lists the employee’s income information for the previous year. It doesn’t matter how long you worked for the company; if you earn more than $600, your employer must issue you a W-2. If any of your wages were withheld for Social Security or Medicare, the employer must issue a W-2 no matter how much you earned. Employers are required to provide you with this information by January 31 so that you can complete your tax return by April 15. Once you have your W-2 in hand, it’s time to get to know the form so you can be sure you don’t make any errors in reporting your income taxes.

What Each Box on the W-2 Means

When your W-2 arrives, check it to make sure that your social security number is listed correctly. The boxes on the left of the form should list your employer’s name and address, as well as your name and address. Directly below your social security number is your employer’s identification number. This number must be entered on your tax return.

Each of the boxes on the right side of your W-2 should have a number. Box 1 indicates the total salary you received, less any tax-exempt or tax-deferred benefits. This includes health insurance, dental insurance, retirement savings, and the cost of most other benefits that your employer deducts from your paycheck. Box 2 is the total amount of income tax withheld by the federal government. Box 3 indicates your total wages subject to the Social Security tax, including amounts not listed in Box 1. This number could be higher than the one in Box 1, because it’s calculated before payroll deductions. Box 5 indicates wages subject to Medicare taxes; since there is no cap for Medicare taxes and they generally don’t include any pretax deductions, this number might be bigger than the one in Box 3.

Boxes 4 and 6 indicate how much you paid for Social Security and Medicare taxes, respectively. The amounts are calculated based on a flat rate: 1.45% for Social Security and 6.2% for Medicare. That means that the numbers in Boxes 4 and 6 should be equal to the amounts in Boxes 1 and 3 multiplied by 1.5 and 6.2 Boxes 7 and 8 reported wages earned from tips; if you don’t report tips to your employer, these boxes will be empty. Box 9 actually no longer serves a purpose; the reporting requirement that made Box 9 necessary expired a few years ago, but the box has yet to be removed from the form.

If your employer paid any dependent care expenses on your behalf, you will see the total amount in Box 10. In Box 11, your employer lists any amounts distributed to you during the year from its non-qualified deferred compensation plan. Box 12 is pretty complicated, and involves entering different codes, only some of which are taxable. For a better explanation of Box 12, it’s best to go straight to the source and read what the IRS has to say about it. Boxes 13 and 14 will be filled out by your employer to indicate if you’re a statutory employee, if you participated in your company’s retirement plan or if you received sick pay from a third-party insurance policy.

Boxes 15 through 20 are information you need to file your state income tax return. This includes your state’s two-letter abbreviation, your employer’s state identification number, your income subject to state taxes (including that which is currently exempt from federal taxes), the amount of state income tax withheld from your paychecks last year, your local wages, local taxes, and the locality name where you paid them. It’s not common for figures to appear in the last three boxes.

What to Do if You Don’t Receive a W-2

If you haven’t received your W-2, make sure your employer mailed it to the correct address. If it was returned to your employer as undeliverable, request a new one and then wait until February 14. At this point you will need to contact the IRS and provide your full name and social security number, your employer’s complete address, your employer’s telephone number, and your estimated wages and tax paid for last year. If you haven’t received a W-2 by April 15, use Form 4852, Substitute for Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement to file. Should you receive your W-2 after you have filed, use Form 1040X to send the correct information.

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What California and Kansas Can Teach Us about the Laffer Curve and Tax Theory

January 6th, 2015 — 10:00am
The Real Laffer Curve?

The Real Laffer Curve?

Since the economic collapse that began in 2008, politicians and lawmakers all across the United States have been on the move to enact policy that will stimulate the economy and bring back jobs. Tax policy has inevitably become part of this national discussion. The Laffer Curve, an economics theory that posits that cutting taxes is beneficial for economic stimulation, has been put to the test in two real life scenarios that have played out in Kansas and California. The results provide significant evidence that calls into question the well-worn principle that a higher minimum wage decreases overall employment and income.

Arthur Laffer’s Theory

The Laffer Curve, one of the fundamental tenets of supply-side economics, was popularized by the economist Arthur Laffer in the late 1970s. As a curve, it merely demonstrates the relationship between tax rates and total tax revenues collected by the government. According to this construct, the effect of a lower tax rate is an increase in work, output, and employment whereas a high tax rate penalizes these activities. The curve is often used to explain and justify the pro-growth worldview of supply-side economics. It should be noted, however, the Laffer Curve does not say definitively that a tax cut will raise or lower revenues. For example, a tax rate of 100% wouldn’t collect more money than a rate of 25%, as no one would be willing to work for an after-tax income of $0. The value of the Laffer Curve is its ability to predict economical behavior based on simple arithmetic truths.

Kansas Tax Cuts & California Tax Hikes

In the case of Kansas, after the election of Sen. Sam Brownback as governor in 2010, the state rolled out a new tax policy, a virtual low-tax paradise that was eventually meant to eliminate the state income tax. Brownback’s administration consulted Laffer on tax cuts and enacted these measures in the hopes that, according to the Laffer Curve, they would help to fuel the stagnant economy. The measures, called “the largest tax cut ever” at the time, were enacted in 2012. It quickly became clear that Kansas’ economy was not following the upward trajectory the Laffer Curve predicted it should. As a result, the state’s credit rating was lowered, first by Moody’s Investors Service and later by Standard & Poor’s, who cited “a structurally unbalanced budget.”

Meanwhile in California, tax rates were rising as much as 30 percent, raising the sales tax to the highest in the nation at 7.5 percent. The Laffer Curve indicates that California’s job growth should have slowed to a crawl and brought the state’s economy to a grinding halt. This October Governor Jerry Brown was happy to announce that the measures had quite the opposite effect, stating “California is back.”

Contradictory to what proponents of the Laffer theory may have predicted, it was California that came out the winner. Jobs in the state grew at a rate 3.4 times greater than in Kansas, and non-farm payroll jobs increased 7.2 percent in California compared to just 2.1 percent in Kansas. California’s credit rating also improved, unlike Kansas’, which means that the state can borrow money at much lower rates than Kansas can. So what happened? Do these real-life contradictions mean that the Laffer Curve doesn’t work?

What Real Life Contradictions Mean

No economic model is perfect. If anything, what these real world contradictions tell economists is that their models need more refinement, but it sends a message to politicians as well. The real world will always trump theory, and changes in policy would be better based on actual data about the number of jobs and what they pay rather than projections, ideology and theory.

It could be that raising the minimum wage will, in the fullness of time, lead to different results. California’s economy could still collapse, and Kansas could see the job growth its experts hoped for originally.  Kansas may fall behind yet further with their frozen minimum wage. For now, it would be wise of policymakers to look at the results and take note. No theory, however compelling, should be more persuasive than real-life results.

1 comment » | Tax & Financial News

Will the New Congress Be Able to Make Any Progress on Tax Reform?

January 5th, 2015 — 1:16pm
Tax Reform?  Really?

Tax Reform? Really?

After the November 4th elections this year, it was widely expected that Republicans would take a majority in the House and Senate. Republican leaders campaigned toward victories on promises of change, though it is unclear just how much change will actually be accomplished. While the Obama administration has for years been interested in tax reform, particularly concerning American companies using a technique called “inversion” to repatriate their profits, given the GOP’s track record, it is not surprising that many think major changes like a tax reform bill has little chance of reaching the President’s desk. Chances may be slim that real reform is going to get passed, but small-scale reform may still be possible.

The Tax Code’s Just Too Big

While many politicians have a lot to say about a “simplified tax code” on everything from foreign taxation to the Affordable Care Act, chances are slim that any reforms of substance will be passed by the new Congress. Why? Because any attempt to gut the President’s healthcare legislation through the tax code will most certainly be vetoed, and many Republicans quietly like what “Obamacare” has brought to the table.

Add to the threat of veto a general distaste among voters for re-arguing issues (like Roe V. Wade) that have already been settled, and it becomes clear that there will be no grandiose simplifications of the code that many have long clamored for. As a result, any type of innovation regarding the tax code will likely be more incremental reform.

There Isn’t Enough Time, But There Is Opposition

In order to have enough time to enact meaningful tax reform, the new Congress will have to begin almost immediately. Republicans will need to be very quick to lay out their key points for change, any of which could easily ignite Democratic opposition and lead to pushback.  However, many Republicans are eager to show voters that they can indeed govern, which could potentially lead to compromise on these types of issues.

In an ideal world, the subsequent debate would be enough to begin work on a bill that could take until the next election to craft. Before the bill could be passed, however, lobbies benefiting from the status quo would push to delay a vote, or even move political money to opponents to get the innovators out of office. This jockeying won’t affect the president during the final months of his second presidential term, but it would likely cast a pall over any incentive from Congress to proactively push for tax reform.

In short, unless the a President is committed to tax reform in partnership with a willing Congress and had a four-year term (at the least) to outlast entrenched lobbyists focused on keeping things as they are, meaningful tax reform remains a long shot.

So What Chance of Change is There?

Ultimately, it will be up to the Republican majority and the president to set the tone for any potential talk of tax reform. The real question is whether either sides is willing to consider their common ground and take a stand for the greater good, even when that stance might prove to be unpopular. When outgoing Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) brought up tax reform earlier this year, his attempts to bring the focus back to tax reform were dismissed by Speaker John Boehner, who was heard to say “blah blah blah” in response.

In short, if small reform measures can attract the attention span of the new Republican Congress, they might pass. Otherwise, the chances of real tax reform over the next two years are slim.

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Giving to Charity This Holiday Season? Here’s How to Report it on Your Taxes

December 23rd, 2014 — 11:51am
Reporting Charitable Deductions

Reporting Charitable Deductions

The end of 2014 is just days away, and if you’re like many Americans, you are planning to give to one or more charitable organizations before the new year dawns. Around 34 percent of all charitable giving is done in the last three months of the year and slightly more than half of that is during the month of December. Giving is up substantially this year over 2013, thanks in large part to the continued national economic recovery.

While the desire to help others is the main reason that most people give to charity, they also enjoy the ability to claim a deduction on their tax return. However, many Americans incorrectly report their charitable giving and do not receive the credits they are entitled to.

The biggest mistake, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), is that people don’t verify that they are giving money or goods to a qualified charitable organization. They also make the mistake of assuming that donations made to individuals, political candidates and political organizations are deductible on their tax return. If you try to claim any of these as charitable donations, the IRS will deny your credit.

How to Claim a Charitable Deduction on Your Tax Return

If you plan to deduct your charitable contributions in 2014, you must use Form 1040 and itemize the deductions on a Schedule A. You may donate cash, tangible goods, services or personal property and write it off on your taxes this year. If you are donating a non-cash item, you should use IRS Publication 561 to determine its value.

In the event that you received merchandise in exchange for your donation, the IRS only allows you to deduct the amount of that item that exceeds fair market value. For example, if you donated money to fund a scholarship and the college gave you season tickets to watch its football team, you must deduct the value of those tickets from your charitable donation.

Stocks, bonds, and other deferred financial contributions are typically deducted at fair market value. This is the amount that the item would sell for if a competent buyer purchased it and the seller presented all relevant facts. In effect this means that all used items that you donate, such as cars and clothing, must be in good used condition in order to claim a tax deduction.

Proof of Donations

If the donation you itemized on Schedule A is worth more than $250, you must have written documentation that contains the name of the organization receiving the gift, the amount of the donation, and the date it changed hands. This communication can be in the form of a bank statement, a pay stub showing a payroll deduction, a letter from the receiver, or a printout of a text message or email.

For donations totaling more than $500 for the year, you need to complete IRS Form 8283 for Non-Cash Charitable Contributions and include it with your return. You should also use Section B of this form for non-cash donations worth more than $5,000 and include a professional appraisal when you submit your return. In most cases, the IRS limits the credits you can claim for charitable giving to 50 percent of your taxable income.

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