As 2010 unfolds, small businesses are confronted with tax challenges and opportunities on many fronts. Lackluster consumer spending, combined with tight credit, has many small businesses in a holding pattern.

Congress may respond with a new tax credit to encourage hiring. Small businesses are also faced with uncertainty over many temporary provisions in the federal Tax Code. Many of these incentives have expired. At the same time, small businesses are uncertain how health care reform, the fate of the federal estate tax and proposed retirement savings initiatives may impact them.

Hiring and retention tax credit
To encourage businesses to hire more workers, the Senate has passed a hiring and retention tax credit (Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act). The credit exempts employers from paying the 6.2 percent Social Security tax for qualified new hires up to the Social Security wage base of $106,800. The new hire must have been unemployed for at least 60 days and added to the employer’s payroll before January 1, 2011. Employers would also be eligible for an additional $1,000 tax credit for each new hire that they keep on the payroll for at least 52 consecutive weeks.

The House has not scheduled a vote on the Senate’s hiring and retention credit and it is unclear if it will. The House approved a jobs bill late last year (Jobs for Main Street Act, H.R. 2847), which does not include a hiring and retention credit.

Businesses may be surprised that some of the tax breaks they took in 2009 are not available in 2010. That’s because many of these popular business tax incentives are temporary and they expired at the end of 2009. They include the research tax credit, 15-year recovery periods for qualified leasehold improvement, restaurant, and retail improvement property, enhanced corporate contributions to qualified organizations, special incentives for producers of alternative energy, and others.

In December 2009, the House approved legislation extending these temporary business incentives through December 31, 2009 (Tax Extenders Act of 2009, H.R. 4213). The Senate, however, has yet to act on the House bill or vote on its own version of an extenders package. Traditionally, the extenders have been renewed but this year there is a chance that renewal may be later rather than sooner. High unemployment numbers have Congress focused on job creation. A growing number of lawmakers view many of the extenders as having little if any impact on immediate job creation in the private sector.

Expensing/bonus depreciation
Under a temporary provision expiring at the end of 2009, taxpayers could expense up to $250,000 in annual investment expenditures for qualified property. The maximum amount that could be expensed for property placed in service in 2009 was reduced by the amount that the qualified property exceeded $800,000. The Obama administration has proposed extending enhanced Code Sec. 179 expensing, with the $250,000/$800,000 threshold, through December 31, 2010. The Senate approved an extension in its jobs bill and the House approved an extension last year but the chambers have yet to approve the extension in a common bill that they can send to the White House for the president’s signature.

Another expired pending incentive is bonus depreciation. Under a temporary provision, an additional first-year depreciation deduction equal to 50 percent of the adjusted basis of the property was provided for qualified property acquired and placed in service before January 1, 2010. The Obama administration has proposed extending bonus depreciation through December 31, 2010. The House approved an extension last year but the Senate has not. There is growing sentiment among some senators that the extension of bonus depreciation into 2010 would be an expensive “budget buster” not worth the price tag.

Health care reform
Health care reform, which dominated the news in recent months, has been on the back burner as lawmakers have switched their attention to jobs. However, health care reform remains a priority of the Obama administration. Some form of a reform package may be enacted in 2010 and it could impose new mandates on employers.

The House health care reform bill (Affordable Health Care for America Act, H.R. 3962) would require employers to satisfy certain minimum coverage requirements. Otherwise, the employer would be liable for an additional payroll tax. Small employers, generally businesses with annual payrolls below $500,000, would be exempt. The Senate health care reform bill (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, H.R. 3590) does not require employers of any size to provide health insurance coverage.

Estate tax
Many small business owners are reviewing their estate plans after the federal estate tax expired January 1, 2010. Effective for decedents dying on and after January 1, 2010 and on or before December 31, 2010 the federal estate tax is replaced with a carryover basis regime. Generally, the income tax basis of property acquired from a decedent is carried over from the decedent. Executors may partially increase the basis of property by up to $1.3 million ($3 million in the case of property passing to a surviving spouse).

The House passed a bill late last year extending the 2009 estate tax into 2010 (Permanent Estate Tax Relief Bill of 2009, H.R. 4154). However, the Senate has not acted on the House bill. Democratic leaders have said the Senate will vote on an extension but have not laid out a timetable. If you have not reviewed your estate plans in light of the expiration of the federal estate tax, please contact our office.

Retirement plans
The Obama administration proposes requiring employers that do not currently offer a retirement plan to offer their employees automatic enrollment in an individual retirement account (IRA). Small businesses (generally employers with 10 or fewer employees) would be exempt from the proposed requirement. The administration’s proposal would be effective for tax years beginning after January 1, 2011. Qualified employers would be eligible for a temporary tax credit of $25 for each employee up to a total credit of $250 per year for a maximum of two years.

At the same time, the administration proposes to enhance the existing tax incentive for small employers that establish a retirement plan. Under current law, employers with 100 or fewer employees that adopt a new qualified retirement plan are entitled to a temporary tax credit equal to 50 percent of their expenses to establish and administer the plan. The credit is limited to $500 per year for three years. The administration has asked Congress to double the tax credit to $1,000 per year for three years. The administration’s proposal would be effective for tax years beginning after January 1, 2011.

Employment tax audits
In addition to trying to cope with the changing tax laws, small businesses should be aware that the IRS has identified their group as a target for vigorous tax audits. Recent surveys have confirmed for the IRS that the small business environment presents easy opportunities for some “bad apples” to cheat on their taxes. Armed with those statistics as justification, the IRS is now aggressively looking to small businesses to help close “the tax gap,” the difference between what taxpayers owe and what is actually collected. One initial area of concern involves employment taxes.

The IRS recently launched a special study of employment tax compliance. The IRS will randomly audit 2,000 taxpayers, including small businesses, each year for the next three years. Employers selected for the study will receive notices from the IRS. According to the IRS, these examinations will be comprehensive, will look at all aspects of employment tax compliance, and will be used to form more effective criteria for auditing many more small businesses.

If you have any questions about the tax opportunities and challenges, please contact us today.