By now, we've heard all about the big stuff in the fiscal cliff bill that finally passed on Tuesday (Wednesday, NZ time). The Bush tax cuts will become permanent for all individual income below US$400,000 (and family income below $450,000). The sequester spending cuts will be delayed two months. And so on.
But Congress also managed to include all sorts of corporate tax breaks and other arcane provisions into the final bill, covering everything from electric scooters to NASCAR racetracks to taking the subway to work. Most of these tax breaks were already longstanding provisions - Congress has been working to renew them all year. They're just being extended again for another year (or sometimes two), at a total cost of roughly $77 billion.
So let's take a look at 10 of the more curious tax provisions in the fiscal cliff bill - it offers some insight into how messy the tax code is, and will continue to be for another year.
1. A $9b "sop for Wall Street banks and major multinationals"
Check out Section 322 of the bill. "Extension of the Active Financing Exception to Subpart F." Sounds dull, right? Not quite.
As Dan Eggen has reported, this provision, first created in 1997, allows manufacturers and banks to defer taxes when they engage in a special type of financial transactions known as "active financing". The break now costs $9b per year, and critics claim it encourages firms to create jobs overseas. But it's a top lobbying priority for companies like GE and JP Morgan, who say that it helps them compete overseas, and it will get extended another year.
Now, there are a tonne of other costly business tax breaks in the deal, too, from tax credits for research and development to bonus depreciation (which studies have found are ineffective at stimulating the economy). But the $9b active financing credit was arguably the hardest-fought.
2. A rum tax for Puerto Rico
Another longstanding item - this one dates back to 1917. Congress currently levies an excise tax worth $13.50 per gallon (3.79 litres) on all rum produced in or imported to the United States. Most of that money is transferred to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who use the revenue to support their rum industries. In 2009, this tax raised some $547 million. The cliff deal would extend the current arrangement another year. (By the way, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in the House, Pedro Pierluisi, thinks this tax set-up is too favorable to rum distillers.)
3. Cheaper office space for Goldman Sachs
OK, it's certainly not called this. Section 328 of the bill extends tax-exempt financing for the "Liberty Zone," the area around the former World Trade Center in New York City, for another year. As Matt Stoller points out, this tax provision was supposed to help fund reconstruction after 9/11. Yet a recent Bloomberg investigation found the bonds have mostly helped finance new luxury apartments, not to mention the construction of Goldman Sachs' new headquarters. Developers say the bonds were necessary to revitalise downtown Manhattan, but there's a fierce debate over how they've been used.
4. Help NASCAR build racetracks
The so-called NASCAR loophole, in place since 2004, allows anyone who builds a racetrack to receive a small tax benefit through accelerated depreciation. This tax break cost roughly $43m the past two years and will get extended for another year. Sounds tawdry, right? And yet, supporters claim the break is necessary so that NASCAR can compete on a level playing field with other theme parks. Looks like they got their wish.
5. Treat coal from Indian lands as an alternative energy source
The fiscal cliff deal has a bunch of provisions for clean energy - notably, it extends a key tax credit for wind power for one more year, thus preventing the US wind industry from downsizing. (That credit will cost about $1.2b per year for 10 years.)
But the production tax credit isn't just for renewable energy sources like wind. There's also a provision, section 406, to continue subsidising coal produced on Indian lands at about $2 per ton (0.91 tonnes). Again, this isn't new. Nor is it a huge deal (it will only cost about $1m). But it's a reminder that not all of the clean-energy provisions in the bill are entirely green.
6. Promote plug-in electric scooters.
For years, Congress has been trying to promote electric cars through various tax breaks and subsidies. But what about electric bikes and scooters? Section 403 of the bill extends a credit for "2- or 3-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles". Yes, these things do exist: The Observer recently reported that e-bikes have become ubiquitous in New York City, used for everything from Chinese food deliveries to expensive joyrides. Only problem? They might well be illegal to ride in New York, although the rules here are awfully confusing.
7. Repair the railroads
Section 306 of the fiscal cliff bill will extend a hefty tax credit to railroads for maintenance work. Congress originally passed this credit because there was a worry that many of the hundreds of "short line railroads" would abandon their small sections of track, which would in turn fracture the national shipping network. This credit costs about $165m per year and will survive another year.
8. Subsidise Hollywood films
The fiscal cliff bill renews "special expensing rules for certain film and television productions," at a cost of some $75m per year. Studios in Hollywood and elsewhere can deduct up to $15m of their costs if more than three-quarters of the movie's production takes place in the United States. (They can get up to $20m in deductions if they produce the film in a low-income community.)
9. Crack down on tax cheats... in prison
The Internal Revenue Service has long worked with state and federal prisons to tamp down on fraud among prisoners who are filing tax returns. Yet, as more and more states have been contracting out their jails and prisons to for-profit companies, the IRS has had difficulty sharing its data with private contractors. Never fear, section 209 of the fiscal cliff bill addresses this concern and allows the IRS to share its files with private prisons.
10. Provide incentives for commuters to take the bus or train
Hey, not all of the lesser-known aspects of the fiscal cliff deal are seedy giveaways to big corporations. There's also a small tax break that gives people incentives to take mass transit. (This provision was originally part of the 2009 stimulus but expired last year.)
For the past year, the tax code has subsidised driving to work over taking transit. If you drove, your employer could cover up to $240 per month in parking expenses tax-free. If you took the bus, your employer could only cover $125 in expenses per month tax-free. The two benefits have now been set at equal levels once again for 2012 (retroactively) and 2013. There's some evidence that this change will induce more people to take transit to work, though it will cost $220m.
- The Washington Post/Bloomberg News