Update on the GOP Bill’s Tax on Graduate Tuition Waivers

Patrick W. Thomas
Professor of the Practice, Notre Dame Law School

Following up on my post on the taxation of graduate student tuition waivers in the GOP tax bill, there have been a few new developments. (By the way, my fellow Hoosier from the opposite end of the state, Michael Austin, along with Sam Brunson, have a great post on the proposed repeal of section 117(d) as it affects university employees and their dependents.)

First, it’s been confirmed that the intent of the House bill (if not necessarily the effect, per my post) is to tax graduate student tuition waivers, for those graduate students who work in a research or teaching assistant role. According to an article in The Verge, a spokesperson from the Ways and Means Committee explicitly indicated as much in an email. While Congressman Brady did release an amendment to the bill Monday (text here) and a subsequent amendment on Thursday (text here), none of the education provisions were affected. Additionally, the bill (incorporating Congressman Brady’s amendments) was reported out of Ways and Means on a party line vote on Thursday. Continue reading “Update on the GOP Bill’s Tax on Graduate Tuition Waivers”

How SALT Deduction Repeal Promotes State Capture of Federal Charitable Contributions

By Manoj Viswanathan, Associate Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of the Law

The current version of the GOP tax bill dramatically limits the deductibility of state and local taxes. For individuals, the deduction for state and local income taxes is eliminated entirely and the deduction for state and local property taxes is limited to the first $10,000. [fn.1] Though much has been said about the proposal, there has been little discussion about how eliminating the state and local tax deduction dramatically incentivizes (1) states to solicit charitable contributions in exchange for state tax credits and (2) taxpayers to make these charitable contributions.

Consider a taxpayer donating $500 to a tax-exempt private school in Arizona. Assuming the taxpayer itemizes, this reduces the taxpayer’s federal taxable income by $500 as per Sections 170(c) and 67(b)(4). Under Arizona’s School Tax Credits for Individuals program, this donation also entitles the taxpayer to a dollar-for-dollar $500 credit against state income tax liability. By donating the $500, the taxpayer has both saved $500 in state tax liability and obtained a federal charitable contribution deduction of $500. Continue reading “How SALT Deduction Repeal Promotes State Capture of Federal Charitable Contributions”

GOP Raises Taxes on Graduate Students … Or Does It?

Patrick W. Thomas
Professor of the Practice, Notre Dame Law School

We’ve all been poring over the GOP tax bill, released last week. On my initial read, I mainly looked at those provisions that affect my own practice in a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic: the expansion/restriction of the Child Tax Credit; the elimination of the dependency exemption; and the lack of any expansion in the Earned Income Tax Credit (paging Paul Ryan…). Selfishly, I also calculated the bill’s effect on my own taxes: a nearly 3% tax cut that I do not need!

Or so I thought. You see, my wife is a Ph.D. student in computer science who, like most students at the University of Notre Dame, receives a full tuition waiver, in addition to a stipend from the university. As I returned home on Friday, ready to put the tax bill out of mind for a couple hours, I saw a tweet from Claus Wilke, professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas:

Uh oh. Back to tax policy on a Friday night, it seems. And, perhaps, so long to that tax cut. Continue reading “GOP Raises Taxes on Graduate Students … Or Does It?”

Trump’s Back-to Basics Tax Plan: It’s Tremendous!

Aren’t we all wondering what President Trump’s big tax reform announcement will be tomorrow?  Loyola Los Angeles Tax LL.M. student Anosh Ali ventured a tongue-in-cheek guess in a short memo he wrote in Katie Pratt’s Tax Policy class.  We’ll see tomorrow how good a prognosticator Anosh is. 

Until then, at least we know that his Presidential ‘voice’ is spot on


TO:         President Trump

FROM:   Anosh Ali, White House Communications Specialist

RE:         Your tax reform press conference on Wednesday

DATE:    April 25, 2017

_____________________________________________________________________________________

You have asked me to prepare talking points for your tax reform press conference tomorrow. This memo includes general talking points and responses to hostile questions you are likely to get from the liberal media. Continue reading “Trump’s Back-to Basics Tax Plan: It’s Tremendous!”

The Insurance Market Regulations in the Republicans’ Health Care Bill: Crippling Obamacare, or Passing a Hot Potato to State Governments?

By David Gamage

On Monday, the House Republicans finally revealed their draft bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (#Obamacare or #ACA). The bill is titled the American Health Care Act, and commentators have been referring to it as either the #AHCA or #Trumpcare.

To assess the bill, it is helpful to think of it as consisting of four primary buckets:

  1. ending many of Obamacare’s tax provisions (read: large tax cuts for the very wealthy);
  2. phased-in cuts to Medicaid funding and scheduled devolution of Medicaid to the states (read: eroding the health safety-net program for the poor);
  3. transforming Obamacare’s other major health subsidies from being based mostly on income and health costs to being based more on age (read: the implications of this are actually less straightforward than what much of the commentary suggests, but that is a topic for another day); and
  4. other changes to Obamacare’s insurance market regulations (the subject of today’s blog post).

In this blog post, I will focus on the fourth bucket—the changes to Obamacare’s insurance market reforms other than the changes to the subsidies. Time permitting, I hope to write future blog posts on some of the other buckets.

What is most striking about the AHCA’s insurance market changes is how they keep the vast majority of Obamacare’s reforms in place. Right-wing groups have thus taken to calling the AHCA “#ObamacareLite”. Yet I consider this a misnomer. A more accurate label would be #ObamacareCrippled.

The AHCA’s changes do not really water down Obamacare, as the intended slur of “ObamacareLite” implies. Rather, the AHCA’s changes would likely cause Obamacare‘s framework for regulating the individual market to fall apart. If the AHCA bill were to be enacted in its current form, the result would likely be adverse-selection death spirals. The only real hope for saving the individual market would be for state governments to step up with new state-level regulations for supporting insurance markets within each state.

Continue reading “The Insurance Market Regulations in the Republicans’ Health Care Bill: Crippling Obamacare, or Passing a Hot Potato to State Governments?”

TaxSlayer: Technically Acceptable for VITA Returns?

Adam C. Mansfield
Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Students, University of Kansas

The first time I logged into the TaxSlayer training lab I knew that this tax season was going to be a problem. It became obvious when I typed “1040NR” into the form lookup box in the upper left corner of the TaxSlayer screen and the search came up empty. Next I tried “1042-S” and “8843.” Same result. Now I’m not some old fuddy-duddy that doesn’t like change.  I love working with new gadgets, software, or operating systems—as long as it does what it is supposed to do.

I work for Legal Services for Students at the University of Kansas. The main target population for our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) grant is nonresident alien (NRA) students and scholars.  Every tax year we help hundreds of international students and researchers determine their residency status, calculate any applicable tax treaty benefits, and prepare their federal and state returns. In the past, TaxWise has worked just fine for this purpose.  I had no problem preparing a return for the student from Bangladesh who had income in both Kansas and Missouri or the Chinese student who has multiple 1042-S forms for scholarships and awards but still needs to apply treaty benefits to his or her wages. This year, TaxSlayer is just not up to the task.

I feel bad for Whitley, a member of TaxSlayer’s customer support squad, who is left with the task of informing me that they are aware of the “issue” that prevents their software from properly applying and reporting a tax treaty benefit on a nonresident alien return.  She proceeded to tell me that they could only handle “simple” state returns in conjunction with an NRA return.  This means that I can’t make any adjustments to the state return in order to properly apportion income. They are “working diligently to iron out the wrinkles.”  Not being able to prepare a pretty basic nonresident alien return is a little more than just a wrinkle. Continue reading “TaxSlayer: Technically Acceptable for VITA Returns?”

As If It Were A “Tax”

Bobby L. Dexter
Professor, Chapman University, Dale E. Fowler School of Law

A complete and comprehensive discussion of the future of tax administration and enforcement requires, as an initial matter, some level of consensus with respect to the meaning of “tax.” For the most part, commentators referring to the word “tax” are comfortably on the same page, but as NFIB v. Sebelius, 132 S. Ct. 2566 (2012), recently taught us, the question of what does or does not constitute a tax can be contentious enough to make it to the nation’s highest court.  In Sebelius, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the penalty imposed on those failing to comply with the individual health care mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) constituted a “tax” within the meaning of Article I, § 8 of the Constitution.  The Court thus confirmed that the notion of a “tax” is far more chameleon than one might think at first glance.  Then again, even if the Court had held otherwise, taxpayers might still have found themselves vulnerable.

Several years ago, section 6305 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (as amended) (hereinafter, the “Code”) was used to allow aggressive pursuit of specific past due child support obligations.  Legislative fiat did the trick. Under that provision, the IRS could collect amounts certified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services “in the same manner, with the same powers, and . . . subject to the same limitations as if such amount were a tax . . . the collection of which would be jeopardized by delay . . .” (emphasis added). Thus, § 6305 not only morphed what many would consider non-tax items into tax status but also allowed the IRS to apply jeopardy assessment and collection measures.  Because pursuit of the revenue using § 6305 was deemed cumbersome even with enhanced collection powers, the new weapon of choice became § 6402.  That provision authorizes the seizure of federal income tax refunds with respect to a host of items including (1) past-due child support obligations; (2) past-due, legally enforceable debt owed to a federal agency (e.g., federally-guaranteed student loans); and (3) past-due, legally-enforceable state income tax obligations.  These provisions ultimately have the potential to substantially complicate “plain vanilla” tax administration and enforcement given that the federal government can serve, in essence, as debt collector for a host of obligations. Even if past due state income tax obligations and past-due child support obligations remain static, one cannot ignore the specter of ever-burgeoning, past-due, federally-guaranteed student debt owed to a federal agency (i.e., the Department of Education). A substantial portion of student debt now rests in the hands of the federal government, the cost of college-level and graduate education is skyrocketing, and student grant funding is under attack.

Some might argue that refund seizure is an extraordinarily efficient collection method given that it is largely electronic and therefore unlikely to result in enhanced administrative burden.  After all, unlike most unsecured creditors, the IRS sitting on a taxpayer refund need not seek out and secure a judgment, petition for a writ of execution, and attempt levy on widely-scattered, fortuitously unencumbered, and rapidly-evaporating assets. But at the end of the day, the measure may backfire. Badly. Although certain innocent spouses impacted by refund seizure under a joint return may enhance administrative burdens by pursuing partial refunds, the more ominous concern regarding administration and enforcement relates to what taxpayers may do in response to an initial seizure. The IRS’s creative display of power is just the first step in a sequential game.  Given their inevitable turn, taxpayers may alter withholdings to ensure that they do not end up in a refund posture or (assuming an initial seizure eliminated the obligation) embrace cheating as a way of “getting back” what was seized previously. Thus, the IRS’s willingness to seize a refund under one set of circumstances may ultimately introduce compliance and enforcement hurdles that were not initially present and may persist for years in the future. The refund intercept program also has potential privacy violation ramifications. A given taxpayer may suffer, for example, the revelation not only that they have a child outside their existing relationship but that they have failed to support the child.  Further, equity concerns present because a refund intercept program may affect only those subject to withholding while sparing those who submit quarterly estimated tax payments, notwithstanding the fact that both taxpayer classes are similarly-situated from an obligation default perspective.

Perhaps tax administrators should stay their hand and let those seeking payment from those with “non-tax” delinquencies pursue other channels. After all, the government may have the power to serve as debt collector, but it need not intervene in every instance, especially when administration and enforcement revenues have long been scarce. Indeed, intervention at the behest of a federal agency (or one of the several states) may ultimately make it more difficult for the IRS to accomplish its central and core mission of collecting revenue due the United States under its tax laws.

For further analysis of these issues, including those rooted in constitutional law, see Bobby L. Dexter, Transfiguration of the Deadbeat Dad and the Greedy Octogenarian:  An Intratextualist Critique of Tax Refund Seizures, 54 U. Kan. L. Rev. 643 (2006).

Is the Emperor Naked? Non-Enforcement of Tax-Exempt Organization Laws

Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer
Professor of Law, Notre Dame Law School

The Donald J. Trump Foundation admits to illegal self-dealing (The Washington Post). The Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation files amended annual returns to correct numerous reporting errors (Amended Returns Fact Sheet). A white nationalist group avoids filing annual returns for several years, apparently in reliance on a bureaucratic misclassification (The Washington Post). On “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” thousands of churches violate the prohibition on IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations supporting or opposing candidates (CNN). These and numerous other recent examples of behavior by tax-exempt organizations that clearly violates the applicable tax laws lead to one obvious question: where was the IRS? The growing perception – and sometimes although not always the reality – is that when it comes to the administration and enforcement of those laws there is no one home.

This trend should be of concern not only for tax scholars and policy makers but also for tax-exempt organizations themselves, if for no other reason than increasing instances of individuals and organizations taking advantage of this perceived lack of oversight almost certainly will lead to questions about the wisdom of providing tax and other benefits to such organizations in the first place. While charitable organizations are the most vulnerable in this respect because they enjoy the greatest such benefits and so face the highest public expectations regarding their behavior, commentators have begun to question even the more modest benefits enjoyed by other types of tax-exempt organizations (see, e.g., Philip T. Hackney, What We Talk About When We Talk About Tax Exemption, 33 Virginia Tax Review 115 (2013); David S. Miller, Reforming the Taxation of Exempt Organizations and Their Patrons, 67 The Tax Lawyer 451 (2014)). To understand this trend and therefore how to address it requires understanding the confluence of factors that have lend to its emergence. Continue reading “Is the Emperor Naked? Non-Enforcement of Tax-Exempt Organization Laws”

Rules and Standards in International Tax Enforcement

Steven Dean
Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School

The international tax regime has struggled to make the leap to the era of big data.  The internet and other potent digital tools make it easy to accumulate and trade vast hoards of information.  Learning how to harness that data to improve fairness and efficiency by making it just as hard to evade taxes abroad as it is at home has proven more difficult.  Simply put, despite years of sustained effort, the algorithm that can do for international tax enforcement what Über has done for finding a ride remains out of reach.

In pursuit of that algorithm, the international tax regime has abandoned flexible standards in favor of precise rules.  Unfortunately, a rule capable of effortlessly bringing tax cheats to justice has so far proven elusive.  In Neither Rules Nor Standards, 87 Notre Dame L. Rev. 537 (2013), I described the appeal and the limits of the the hunt for algorithms (rules) to replace the standards that have long formed the core of the international tax regime.

Which is better for the international tax regime?  Rules seem to be the obvious answer.  And indeed, since the global financial crisis, nations have embraced rules calling for the supply of information according to precise specifications.  The U.S. FATCA regime calls for foreign banks to supply information about U.S. taxpayers to the I.R.S.  while the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard imposes comprehensive income reporting obligations on a broad network of states.  Each promises to provide tax authorities with extraterritorial tax information they need to crack down on tax cheats. Continue reading “Rules and Standards in International Tax Enforcement”

IRS Attorneys as Public Servants and Enforcers

Clint J. Locke
Instructor, The University of Alabama, Culverhouse School of Commerce

The mission of the IRS Office of Chief Counsel is to serve America’s taxpayers by impartially and fairly administering the tax laws while simultaneously providing high quality legal representation to the commissioner of the IRS.  At first glance this mission seems appropriately balanced between public service and legal enforcement.  However, further deliberation creates uncertainty as to how such a mission can be accomplished. ABA Model Rule 1.7 prevents attorneys from representing two clients in the same litigation proceeding when the interests of such clients are directly adverse to each other. Can IRS attorneys ethically serve the public and serve the IRS?

When a taxpayer files a Tax Court petition in response to a notice of deficiency, an adversarial relationship arises between the IRS attorney and the taxpayer.  This adversarial relationship exists within the judicial system and is contained within one specific Tax Court proceeding.  As a result, Model Rule 1.7 prevents an IRS attorney from representing the IRS and serving a taxpayer, regardless of informed consent.

It could be argued that representation of the IRS as a client and service to a taxpayer are two separate and distinct relationships, such that dual representation is not implicated.  This argument carries particular weight when a taxpayer is represented by an attorney.  However, a majority of Tax Court cases are filed pro se, putting the IRS attorney in a conflicting role.  The IRS attorney is now tasked with representing the IRS position, while at the same time informing the taxpayer of legal and factual issues.

There can be no question that the IRS attorney will be aware of factual or legal weaknesses in a taxpayer’s position.  The questions that do exist are: (1) which weaknesses will the IRS attorney reveal to the taxpayer, and (2) which legal authorities will the IRS attorney share with the taxpayer?  Representation of the IRS position directly conflicts with service to the taxpayer. Sharing a factual weakness with the taxpayer will be at the expense of the IRS position.  Informing the taxpayer of a specific legal authority will bolster the taxpayer’s argument or assist the taxpayer in meeting the factual requirements of the law.  Consequently, in the pro se context, public service crosses over into a quasi-client representation relationship.  This relationship is ethically impermissible pursuant to Model Rule 1.7.

Clearly there are circumstances, particularly with respect to IRS attorneys serving in the national office, where an IRS attorney can effectively and ethically enforce the law and serve the public.  However, as administration and enforcement of the law moves into the field offices, it becomes much more difficult for these two purposes to coexist.