As 2012 gets underway, Congress has extended the employee-side payroll tax cut but a laundry list of tax incentives have expired and their renewal is in doubt. The fate of these incentives, along with the Bush-era tax cuts, will dominate debate in Washington D.C. in 2012. At the same time, tax planning in a time of uncertainty appears to have become the new normal.

Payroll tax cut
The Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011, approved by Congress on December 23 and signed by President Obama the same day, extends the 2011 payroll tax holiday through the end of February 2012. The employee-share of OASDI taxes is 4.2 percent for the period January 1, 2012 through February 29, 2012 (10.4 percent for self-employment income).

The new law also includes a recapture provision for certain individuals. However, the House Ways and Means Committee reported that the recapture provision will only apply if the payroll tax reduction is not extended for the remainder of 2012. Lawmakers are expected to extend the employee-side payroll tax cut through the end of 2012, although not before difficult negotiations.

One speed bump to extending the payroll tax cut through the end of 2012 is its cost. The two-month extension is paid for by increasing certain fees charged to mortgage lenders. A full-year extension will require additional offsets (unless Congress decides not to offset an extension). Lawmakers are reportedly discussing additional revenue raisers, such as unspecified changes to the S corporation rules and the closing of a loophole for corporate jets.

Other revenue raisers reportedly under consideration are repeal of certain oil and gas preferences and repeal of the last-in, first-out (LIFO) method of accounting. A variety of spending cuts are also on the table.

Extenders
After December 31, 2011, many popular but temporary tax breaks expire. The incentives, which are known as “extenders,” impact individuals and businesses. Some of the more popular individual extenders are the state and local sales tax deduction, the higher education tuition deduction, and the teachers’ classroom expense deduction. For businesses, the research tax credit is one of the most important extenders.

One immediate change that many taxpayers will notice is a drop in transit benefits. In 2011, commuters benefitted from more generous transit benefits. The 2011 monthly limit on the tax benefit for transit and vanpools of $230 per month reverts to $125 per month in 2012. However, the monthly limit for qualified parking provided by an employer to its employees for 2012 will increase to $240, up $10 from the limit in 2011.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to extend the expiring incentives. However, the bills have languished in committee. One reason for the lack of movement is that Congress can extend the incentives in 2012 and make them retroactive to January 1, 2012.

The extenders are also separate from the temporary Bush-era tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire after December 31, 2012. Many lawmakers do not want to link the extenders to the more-controversial Bush-era tax cuts.

IRS budget
One bill that did pass Congress at year-end 2011 was a fiscal year 2012 budget for the IRS. Congress voted to cut $305 million from the IRS’s FY 2012 budget. How this cut will impact IRS operations is unknown. In November 2011, the IRS offered buyouts and early outs to back-office employees to reduce its greatest expense: employee payroll. The IRS could also delay some business systems modernizations to save money. The IRS will likely keep customer service as close as possible to full funding, especially during the busy 2012 filing season.

Tax planning
One of the most significant challenges to long-term tax planning is the on-again, off-again nature of many tax incentives. Temporary incentives, such as the research tax credit and the state and local sales tax deduction, have become de facto permanent incentives because they are regularly extended. Nonetheless, they are temporary. Because of their temporary nature, taxpayers must have two tax plans: one that takes into account an extension of the incentives, and a second plan that does not.

If you have any questions about tax planning and tax legislation in 2012, please contact our office.