Taxes, taxes, taxes

Who was it that said, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes”?  They should have added tax loopholes and exemptions to that list.

Here in Massachusetts we have a Senate candidate who took at $281,000 tax credit for agreeing not to made changes to the facade of his home located in a historic district.  I don’t know how this works in other states but here local city and town councils can pass by-laws regulating historic districts.  Cohasset, the town where Gabriel Gomez lives, has a by-law on the books that says owners of homes in the historic district may not change the facades of their homes.  So Mr. Gomez basically took a tax credit for something he was prohibited from doing anyway.  Adrian Walker wrote this in the Globe this morning.

Challenged to explain, a testy Gomez set a new standard for chutzpah. He claimed that his tax break is really the fault of his opponent, Ed Markey — because in 1981, Markey voted for the law that established tax breaks for historical preservation.

OK.  So maybe taking the tax break was not illegal, but there is something about it that makes me – and it appears – other voters wonder if this is the guy we want representing us.  Plus there is the fact that most of us don’t make $281K over many years much less get to take that much off our taxes.

Walker continues

Andy Hiller of WHDH-TV cornered Gomez and asked a few questions about it, or tried to. What he got back from Gomez was this: “I don’t apologize for any success I’ve had. Absolutely not. I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I’ve worked for everything I’ve done. I’ve earned everything I’ve done.”

Gomez is an accomplished military veteran who has earned many things in his life, but he certainly didn’t earn this. Even the Internal Revenue Service has decried the historical-preservation deduction he took as a farce.

The questions about Gomez’s taxes probably haven’t ended, either.

On a financial disclosure form filed in March, Gomez said that under his separation agreement from the private equity firm Advent International, he received something called “carried interests.”

Carried interests are fees paid to equity firms and hedge funds to manage portfolios. They are taxed as capital gains, at a rate of 20 percent, rather than the top income rate of 39.5 percent.

Carried interests are fees paid to equity firms and hedge funds to manage portfolios. They are taxed as capital gains, at a rate of 20 percent, rather than the top income rate of 39.5 percent.

The carried interest rate — which costs taxpayers an estimated $1.3 billion a year — has long been the subject of dispute, with some critics arguing that this is one of the first tax loopholes lawmakers should close.

How much of Gomez’s income falls under the “carried interest” loophole is unclear from the disclosure form.

Gabriel Gomez is running as a reformer, as an outsider but as Walker points out, he already knows all the tricks.  Maybe we need someone like him to help reform the tax code – not!

Internal Revenue Service Building

Internal Revenue Service Building

Taxes are also at the heart of what the Republicans hope will be the scandal that brings down the Obama Administration if Benghazi doesn’t work out for them.  According to the New York Times this is what we know.

The Internal Revenue Service’s special scrutiny of small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status went beyond keyword hunts for organizations with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names, to a more overtly ideological search for applicants seeking to “make America a better place to live” or “criticize how the country is being run,” according to part of a draft audit by the inspector general that has been given to Capitol Hill.

The head of the division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, was briefed on the effort in June 2011, seemingly contradicting her assertion on Friday that she learned of the effort from news reports. But the audit shows that she seemed to work hard to rein in the focus on conservatives and change it to a look at any political advocacy group of any stripe.

Since last year’s elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Obama’s re-election and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.

But the accusations of I.R.S. abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.

“The bottom line is they used keywords to go after conservatives,” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Sunday on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.” He requested the inspector general’s audit along with another Republican, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. As an audit, it will not find blame or refer anyone for criminal prosecution.

This all goes back to the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Count and the flood of organization, most it seems on the right to register as 501(c)4 social welfare groups.  This leaves me puzzled.  How can a group which supports political lobbying be tax exempt?  I give money to Planned Parenthood to support clinics.  I also give money for the political operations.  The first is tax exempt, the second is not.  So maybe the problem is, once again, with the tax code.  Ezra Klein explains.

Let’s try to keep two things in mind simultaneously: The IRS does need some kind of test that helps them weed out political organizations attempting to register as tax-exempt 501(c)4 social welfare groups. But that test has to be studiously, unquestionably neutral.

The story thus far seems both chilling and cheering. Employees at the agency’s Cincinnati branch did employ a test that, in effect, targeted tea party groups. Whether they meant it to be discriminatory or they simply created one that was discriminatory is in contention, but ultimately immaterial. The IRS, more so than almost any other agency, must act in ways above  reproach.

But when the Cincinnati group explained their test to IRS exempt organizations division chief Lois G. Lerner, she objected to it and it was changed. A few months later, the IRS would release new guidance that suggested scrutinizing “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” and after that, “organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political  campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit.)”

The context for all this is that after Citizens United and some related decisions, the number of groups registering as 501(c)4s doubled. Because the timing of that doubling coincided with a rise in political activism on the right rather than the left, a lot of the politicized groups attempting to register as 501(c)4s were describing their purpose in tea party terms. A popular conceit, for  instance, was that they existed to educate on the Constitution — even if the particular pedagogical method meant participating in Republican Party primaries and pressuring incumbent politicians.

In looking for that kind of language in 2010, the Cincinnati employees were attempting to create a usable shortcut. Like Willie Sutton robbing banks, they were going where the action was. But they needed a clearer test that also identified the language of the left, even if left-leaning  groups weren’t exhibiting the same surge in activism. And, frankly, it shouldn’t have been left to career employees in Cincinnati. The IRS needed clearer rules coming from the top. But the top didn’t know what to do with these 501(c)4s, in part because it feared a situation precisely like this one.

It is worth remembering an important fact here: The IRS is supposed to reject groups that are primarily political from registering as 501(c)4s. If they’re going to do  that, then they need some kind of test that helps them flag problematic applicants. And that test will have to be a bit impressionistic. It will mean taking the political rhetoric of the moment and watching for it in applications. It will require digging into the finances and activities of groups on the left and the right that seem to be political even as they’re promising their activities are primarily non-political.

If we’re not comfortable with that, then we need to either  loosen the definition of 501(c)4s or create a new designation that gives explicitly political groups the benefits of the 501(c)4s (namely, they don’t have to pay taxes and they can keep their donors anonymous). But either way, as I wrote on Friday, the only way to make sure this doesn’t keep happening is for the IRS — or the Congress and White House that control it — to make some tough decisions about 501(c)4s.

To make things look even more suspicious, Ms. Lerner appears to have been confused about the order in which events unfolded.  But, is there a scandal here?   It does not appear that any group, on the right or left has been denied 501(c)4 status.  I believe that to get 501(c)3 status which most community development groups and organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Boys and Girls clubs have one must provide a lot of information including board membership and by-laws.  The problem here is that many these new groups appear to be political organizations regardless of whether or not they claim to be educational.  I question whether any of these groups, right or left, should be tax exempt.

“Tax-exempt social-welfare groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code are allowed to engage in some political activity, but the primary focus of their efforts must remain promoting social welfare. That social-welfare activity can include lobbying and advocating for issues and legislation, but not outright political-campaign activity. But some of the rules leave room for IRS officials to make judgment calls and probe individual groups for further information. Organizing as such a group is desirable, not just because such entities typically don’t have to pay taxes, but also because they generally don’t have to identify their donors.” John D. McKinnon and Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

The odds are against Mr. Gomez being elected to the Senate and they are likely to be against the Republicans making a credible argument about the IRS, but taxes and tax exemptions are clearly land mines for anyone in politics today.  But if the Republicans are right, that is a place where the Obama Administration and I will part company.  As my Congressman Mike Capuano said today, “There’s no way in the world, I’m going to defend that. [if the accounts are true] Hell, I spent my youth vilifying the Nixon administration for doing the same thing.”

Photograph:  Reuters

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