The tax hikes Congress passed to solve the fiscal-cliff mess won’t raise enough revenue to keep the nation’s budget woes in check. But rather than raise rates further, President Obama hinted Sunday that lawmakers’ next round of deficit-reduction talks will probably revolve around closing tax loopholes and eliminating deductions. Though no specifics are on the table, experts say there are several likely candidates for the chopping block. One profitable option: making employer-sponsored health benefits taxable, says Roberton Williams, an economist at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center based in Washington. More than 150 million Americans get health insurance through their employers tax-free. But taxing those benefits could reduce federal spending by an average of $150 billion a year over the next five years, according to estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation. The average health-insurance premium costs about $16,000 a family, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. If those perks suddenly became taxable, some families might try to reduce costs by moving into lower premium plans, which often come with higher deductibles and co-payments, says Williams. The government is already drawing more attention to these benefits by requiring employers to break out how much the company and the employee spent on insurance coverage on W-2 forms, which report annual wage and salary figures. (See also “Is Taxing Health Plans Next?”) — By Jonnelle Marte
The mortgage-interest deduction (Z: I bought my first home on my own almost entirely for this deduction. Look for the housing market to tank)
Though it’s one of the more popular tax breaks, the mortgage-interest deduction frequently comes up in conversations about raising revenue. Given the state of the housing market, it’s unlikely this break would disappear completely, but lawmakers could decide to scale it back in a number of ways, says Keith Gumbinger, a mortgage analyst at HSH. One option is to reduce the cap on the amount of mortgage debt that can be factored into the deduction from $1 million to, say, $500,000. Congress might also limit the deduction to one’s primary residence, and not allow it to be used for second homes. And Congress could decide to phase out the interest deduction for those earning above a certain income. The tax savings for those who take advantage of the perk can be significant: The first-year deduction on a $400,000 30-year mortgage with a fixed rate of 3.75% is $14,874, says Gumbinger. As with other itemized deductions, changes here would impact higher earners more than low- to middle-income households, which are more likely to use the standard deduction, he says.
State and local tax deductions
Those who itemize can generally deduct the state and local taxes they pay. The perk is vulnerable given its size: Taxpayers deducted $260 billion of such taxes in 2010, according to the most recent data from the Internal Revenue Service. The tax break may also be targeted because it’s already denied to the roughly 4 million Americans subject to the alternative-minimum tax, says Williams, of the Tax Policy Center, potentially making it easier for Congress to do away with this break for all taxpayers.
Charitable deductions (Z: the next will be churches losing tax exemption; I promise; with charitable deductions gone, the poor will be going to the government; just what the Left wants)
Lawmakers may be hesitant to tax altruism, but experts say the break for charitable donations could be at risk. The Congressional Budget Office examined eliminating it, as a possible option for reducing the federal deficit, estimating that curtailing the deduction for such contributions could increase federal revenue by approximately $20 billion in 2014. One proposal that could reappear in budget talks is to set an income threshold, allowing taxpayers to only deduct contributions that exceed 2% — or some other percentage — of their income, economists say. Critics argue that such a threshold could encourage donors to bundle their contributions — meaning they’d give every other year instead of annually, to increase their chances of meeting the minimum. But proponents say it could also encourage people to boost their overall donations.
Municipal bond interest
Municipal bonds are favored by investors in high tax brackets because their interest is exempt from federal taxes, as well as many state and local taxes. Obama has proposed limiting this tax break for the wealthiest Americans by capping the exemption at 28%. Under such rules, taxpayers in the 35% bracket would effectively pay a 7% tax on their municipal-bond interest. Municipalities argue that reducing or eliminating the tax exemption would push up their borrowing costs because investors would demand higher interest rates for owning the bonds. But Congress may be tempted to cut back on this large federal expense: The exclusion of municipal-bond interest income from federal taxes will cost the government an estimated $50 billion this year, and $300 billion over the next five years, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
WHICH ONE OF THESE WILL HURT YOU THE MOST? And do you agree that FRAUD in entitlements should be looked into first?