Hey Tax Pro!
The Internal Revenue Service used its legislative authority to hire employees at salaries higher than those typically given to senior executives in the federal government, according to a new government report that found the practice appropriate, even though Congress has now stepped in to change it. The report, from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, noted that the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 authorized the IRS to hire up to 40 individuals (at any one time) into positions it deemed to require extremely high-level expertise in an administrative, technical, or professional field that is critical to the IRS's success. The appointments were limited to four years. Employees hired under the Streamlined Critical Pay, or SCP, program received base salaries ranging from $130,000 to $227,300. The base pay for members of the Senior Executive Service in 2010-2013 ranged from $177,000 to $179,700.
The IRS used its streamlined critical pay authority to fill 168 critical pay positions between 1998 and 2013, when the program expired, TIGTA found. Over half were information technology positions and the remaining positions were distributed among the other nine IRS functions. Approximately 39 (38 percent) of the critical pay appointees were retained and held different appointments after their initial appointment or assigned project ended.
TIGTA's review found that the critical pay positions were adequately justified. The report said the need to recruit or retain exceptionally well-qualified individuals was demonstrated and that pay limitations were adhered to by the IRS. In November 2009, the Treasury Secretary's critical pay approval authority was delegated to the IRS commissioner, effectively eliminating an important oversight control written into the original authority.
TIGTA found that two critical pay appointees had previously worked for the IRS. After they separated from the IRS, they held private sector jobs for several years before returning to fill the critical pay positions to which they were appointed.
TIGTA did not make any recommendations in its report.
The report comes after a decision last month by IRS commissioner John Koskinen to award bonuses of around 1 percent of base salary to IRS employees. That decision came under sharp attack from some members of Congress.
On Thursday, Koskinen pointed to the results of the TIGTA report. “The IRS is pleased that the Inspector General’s review and report on the agency’s use of its Streamlined Critical Pay authority found that the IRS had ‘appropriately used its legislative authority’ and that the ‘critical pay positions were adequately justified; the need to recruit or retain exceptionally well-qualified individuals was demonstrated; and that pay limitations were adhered to,’” Koskinen said in a statement. “Over the past year, I have strongly urged the Congress to reinstate this critical program. Therefore, we are deeply disappointed that Congress has decided not to reauthorize this program, which was an important reform in the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998.
"The IRS has found that the Streamlined Critical Pay authority has been an enormously cost-effective and necessary tool in recruiting top-tier talent," Koskinen added. "Its renewal is essential to continuing IRS technology modernization progress and advances in other high-demand areas requiring people with specialized skill sets. This authority will allow the IRS to attract private-sector executives for Information Technology programs as well as other specialized functions requiring cutting edge skills and specialized expertise. The Streamlined Critical Pay program has been a huge success over the past decade, giving the IRS access to highly qualified people who have helped usher in a period of remarkable IT advances vital to running a modern tax system.
"I encourage the 114th Congress to reinstate Streamlined Critical Pay authority to ensure the tax system has the necessary level of talent required for efficient and effective tax administration," said Koskinen. "Without Streamlined Critical Pay authority, the IRS’s ability to attract top talent and deliver vital tax functions will be hampered during a period of rapid change both in technology as well as in tax administration overall.
Uncertainty over federal tax policies is frustrating for small businesses such as Al Talbot’s construction-supply firm in California.
Many Call on Congress to Make the $500,000 Expensing Limit Permanent
By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR from www.ap.org
Many people covered under President Barack Obama's health care law will face higher premiums next year, the administration acknowledged Thursday. While the average increases are modest, it's more fodder for the nation's political battles over health care.
Officials stressed that millions of current HealthCare.gov customers can mitigate the financial hit if they're willing to shop around for another plan in a more competitive online marketplace. Subsidies will also help cushion the impact.
It's currently taking an average of 30 minutes for returning customers to update their coverage.
Premiums for the most popular type of plan are going up an average of 5 percent in 35 states where Washington is running the health insurance exchanges this year and will do so again in 2015, said a report from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Monthly premiums are one of the most important and politically sensitive yardsticks for Obama's health care law, which offers subsidized private insurance to people who don't have access to coverage through their jobs. Sharper premium hikes were common before it passed.
The modest average increases reported for 2015 mask bigger swings from state to state, and even within regions of a state. According to data released by the administration, some communities will still see double-digit hikes while others are seeing decreases. Most are somewhere in the middle.
"Prior to the Affordable Care Act taking place, we saw double-digit increases in health care costs in this country," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "Those were routine."
Many people who go back to the website "will now find that their costs are limited to only 5 percent on average," he said, "a much lower cost increase than was in place before the Affordable Care Act."
Even after Thursday's report, the bottom line remains blurry.
ast year, the administration released its analysis of premiums before the start of open enrollment season. This year's snapshot came more than two weeks after sign-ups had started and covered 13 fewer states. Among the missing states were two of the largest, California and New York.
Last year's report provided average premiums for three types of plans across 48 states — close to a national number. This year's report has no comparable statistic.
With both chambers of Congress under Republican control next year, the health care law will face even closer scrutiny from opponents still pursuing its repeal.
Nonetheless, industry experts said the picture appears positive for consumers and the administration.
"Benchmark premiums going into year two of the health law are very stable nationally, driven largely by strong competition among insurers," said Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. "How the law is playing out varies quite a bit across the country, with premiums increasing in some areas but actually going down in other places, which is almost unheard of."
Administration officials said that on the whole, the market for individual insurance has gotten better for consumers.
"In today's marketplace, issuers are competing for business," HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in a statement. "Returning customers may find an even better deal if they shop and save."
The administration says about two-thirds of current customers can still find coverage comparable to what they have now for $100 a month or less if they shop. That estimate takes into account the tax credits that most consumers receive, which cover about three-fourths of their premiums on average.
Also, 91 percent of customers will have a choice of three or more insurers this year, with each company usually offering a range of plans. That's a notable improvement from last year, when 74 percent of customers had similar options.
The most popular coverage, known as the lowest cost silver plan, will go up 5 percent next year across the 35 states included in the administration's analysis. The second-lowest cost silver plan — the benchmark the government uses to set subsidy levels — will go up an average of 2 percent.
Tax credits are based on a person's income and the premium for the second-lowest cost silver plan in their community. The slow premium growth for the second-lowest cost silver plans is also good news for taxpayers who are subsidizing the program.
Open enrollment season for 2015 is now in its third week and runs through Feb. 15. The next big deadline for consumers is Dec. 15, the date by which new customers must sign up if they want their coverage to take effect on Jan. 1. For current customers, it's the deadline to make changes and updates that would take effect Jan. 1.
Current customers who do nothing will be automatically renewed in the plan they have now on Jan. 1. But with all the changes in premiums for 2015, administration officials and consumer advocates are urging people to come back and shop.
"For the vast majority of people, if they stay in the same plan, I think they'll see rate increases in the single digits to high single digits," said Andy Slavitt, a top HHS official overseeing technology and management issues.
The administration has set a goal of 9.1 million people enrolled in 2015, including most of the current 6.7 million customers.
Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
House Republicans voted to rebuke President Obama for his unilateral overhaul of the nation’s immigration system Thursday, passing legislation to curb the White House’s ability to protect millions of people from being deported.
But the effort was largely symbolic: The Democratic-controlled Senate plans to ignore the bill, and the White House has said it would veto it.
Still, the political consequence of the bill that passed by a 219-to-197 vote (three Republicans voted present) is the bolstered standing of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), leaving him well positioned to pass an omnibus spending bill next week that would fund the government beyond Dec. 11, when current funds will expire. Some of the most conservative GOP members wanted to tie the immigration defunding measure to the larger government spending bill.
But Boehner’s ease in persuading his unruly conference to forgo a politically risky showdown underscores a new pragmatic streak in his ranks since the GOP’s big gains in the midterm elections.
Rather than governing by crisis as they have in recent years, House Republicans seem eager to move past the tumultuous lame-duck session and look ahead to January, when they will take control of both congressional chambers. They hope to pass bills on tax issues and energy policy and their own versions of immigration reform.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) defended President Obama's plan for immigration and urged members of Congress to vote on legislative reforms during a news conference on Thursday. (AP)
“We’ve learned some hard lessons since the government shutdown last year,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Boehner ally. “People are swallowing things that are difficult to swallow on all sides of the conference.”
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a firebrand who voted against Boehner in the speaker election two years ago, sponsored the legislation that passed the House on Thursday. It was included as part of the GOP’s response in order to signal to hard-liners that Boehner was listening to their pleas to repudiate the president. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), a new member of the leadership team trusted by many conservatives, orchestrated its consideration and passage.
“We think this is the most practical way to fight the president’s action,” Boehner said at a Thursday news conference. “Frankly, we listened to our members, and we listened to some members who were frankly griping the most. This was their idea of how to proceed.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest warned Thursday that Yoho’s bill “would actually roll back some of the president’s proposed reforms to the immigration system in a way that would actually devote law enforcement resources to deporting ‘dreamers.’ The president does not believe it is an efficient or effective use of law enforcement resources to try to separate these individuals from their families.”
Earnest questioned why the House GOP was taking the time to pass a measure to “roll back” the president’s initiatives rather than voting on a bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate last year. “It’s a little nonsensical for them to be pursuing this course of action but not inconsistent with their previous strategy.”
But Thursday’s vote is only the first step in Boehner’s two-part immigration strategy. Before next week’s vote on the spending bill, the leadership is reassuring conservatives that the immigration fight is only beginning and courting Democrats to support the spending bill.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she is open to backing Boehner if Republicans don’t shift the legislation to curry favor with conservatives in the coming days.
“We want to work together to pass a bill to keep government open as we had to supply the votes last year to open up government,” Pelosi said at a news conference. “Let us supply the votes to keep government open. But we can’t do it unless we have a bill that is worthy of our support.”
Boehner’s package, which the speaker outlined this week in a meeting with GOP members, would include 11 of the 12 appropriations bills, except for the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over immigration enforcement. DHS would be funded only through February to ensure that immigration remains at the fore of the national debate by forcing Congress to again deal with immigration in a few months.
Boehner didn’t rule out stripping the immigration-related funding from the DHS budget. “We’ve had limited options in terms of how we can deal with this. But there are options, and we’re going to continue to pursue this,” he said at the news conference.
Aides said Boehner is treading carefully as he rounds up votes for the spending bill. Republican leaders are keeping tabs on the scope of conservative fury and the various demands being made by members. Some have called on Boehner to not invite Obama to deliver the State of the Union address next year; others have suggested cutting the budgets for White House operations.
But on Thursday, Boehner dismissed such chatter. Asked whether he might not invite Obama to give a State of the Union address, he said: “Listen, the more the president talks about his ideas, the more unpopular he becomes. Why would I want to deprive him of that opportunity?”
BY JACKIE PERLMAN AND ALISON FLORES from Accoutingtoday.com
As the result of a recent court ruling, college football and basketball stars may soon share in the big money brought to their schools through college athletics, but there hasn’t been much discussion about the tax implications this case could have on college athletes’ tax-free education and the many perks they receive. In O’Bannon et al. v. NCAA, a judge for the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that NCAA regulations barring payments to college athletes were in violation of antitrust laws. The lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit was former U.C.L.A. basketball player Ed O’Bannon. More than 10 years after graduation, O’Bannon discovered that his likeness was being used on a video game, without his consent or compensation, and he accordingly filed suit.
The court ruled in favor of O’Bannon, allowing colleges with football teams in the Top 10 conferences and colleges with Division I men’s basketball teams to offer recruits a share of:
- Revenues generated from the use of the recruits’ names, images and likenesses while they are in school. The NCAA can cap this compensation while the student-athlete is enrolled in school, and the compensation can be in addition to a full “grant-in-aid” (generally, a full scholarship).
- Licensing revenue, to be deposited annually into trust funds for the student-athletes and paid to the recruits when they leave school or when their eligibility expires. The NCAA can cap the amount of money that can be contributed annually to the trust funds, and schools can offer lower amounts if they choose.
This ruling is set to go into effect in July of 2016 and applies only to Football Bowl Subdivision football recruits and Division I basketball recruits. The NCAA is appealing the ruling.
Commentators have discussed how this decision could affect college sports, amateurism, TV audiences’ viewing choices, recruiting competitiveness and fairness, higher education budgets, the NCAA’s tax-exempt status, and the fate of the NCAA altogether. For the student-athletes themselves, the ruling may have unintended tax consequences.
Background on scholarships and tax
Qualified scholarships are excluded from gross income under IRC Section 117, which means that the recipient does not pay tax on the scholarship funds. To get this tax-free treatment:
- The student must be a degree candidate at an eligible educational organization; and,
- The scholarship must be used for qualified expenses.
Qualified expenses are tuition and fees, as well as books, supplies and equipment required for coursework. Room and board, travel, and other costs are not qualified expenses.
Services to the school
Under the law, if the student is required to perform services for the school to receive the scholarship (laboratory research, for instance), the funds attributable to the services provided to the school are equivalent to taxable wages (with limited exceptions). Treas. Reg. Section 1.117-4 also emphasizes this point.
This type of restrictive language in the law and regulations raises questions about whether an athletic scholarship really qualifies as true educational assistance, or crosses the line as payment for services to the school.
Room and board
According to a nearly 38-year-old IRS ruling (Rev. Rul. 77-263), an athletic scholarship is nontaxable only under the following conditions:
- The scholarship does not exceed expenses for tuition, fees, room, board, and necessary supplies.
- The school expects but does not require the student to participate in a particular sport.
- The school does not require any particular activity in lieu of participation and doesn’t cancel the scholarship if the student cannot participate.
The first condition in this ruling does not mean that an athletic scholarship can be used to provide students with tax-free room and board. Rather, it means that the total scholarship awarded (both taxable and non-taxable portions) must not exceed the total cost of attending the school. If this and the other two conditions are met, then the portion of the athletic scholarship covering qualified expenses will be tax-free and not treated as payment for services.
IRS Pub. 970, Tax Benefits for Education, bears this out: Athletic scholarship recipients are referred to the same worksheet used by all scholarship recipients to determine the taxable and nontaxable parts of scholarship funds received.
What could change
Few students who apply for athletic scholarships get one at all, much less get one of the limited number of full-ride athletic scholarships doled out each year. According to some reports, the odds of a high school athlete getting any sports scholarship are only 2%. For most of these students, the scholarship covers only a fraction of their costs.
But what about the few star athletes who play basketball or football for one of the top college conferences and manage to get a high-dollar or full-ride scholarship? While we may know that they get much more than “regular” students – and that their many perks are not just dorm rooms and cafeteria vouchers – scholarships for these students are not called out for any special treatment in the Tax Code, limited IRS guidance, or even in the Internal Revenue Manual. Perhaps this could change.
The tax implications
The O’Bannon decision refers to student-athletes’ share of revenue from the use of their names and likenesses as “compensation.” It is difficult to see how reporting this type of compensation as anything other than taxable income could ever be justified.
Students’ share of licensing revenue would likewise have to be treated as taxable compensation. The fact that deposits might be made to trusts does not necessarily mean that the funds won’t be immediately taxable. Although athletes may not have access to the trust funds while they are in school, the athletes would likely be taxed when the compensation is paid to the trust. And interest earned on the trust funds will certainly be taxable in the year earned. With all of this extra scrutiny, the other perks of being a star college athlete – travel, guest passes, gear, health care – might just show up on a Form 1098-T in the scholarship and grant box one day.
Finally, just as with medical residents, the very notion that the star player is really a student first and athlete second – rather than a paid employee of the school – will continue to be called into question. Although they may not see it in that light, the athletes themselves may cast doubt on their own student status. Consider student-athletes’ interest in forming labor unions, the NCAA’s approval of unlimited meals, and other changes in the news this year.
It remains to be seen what will happen in 2016. The NCAA could win on appeal. And schools and conferences would have a lot to consider when deciding what to offer future recruits. Stay tuned.