During the State of the Union address, President Obama said that tax reform is a key issue for small businesses today. Specifically, the president stressed that many small businesses are overwhelmed with administrative tasks associated with tax filing and deserve the opportunity to focus on strategic areas of their business that could help them grow and hire more workers.
“For many businesses, the complexity of the tax code is challenging,” said Ron Butler, partner at Ernst & Young in Phoenix. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs incur significant costs to interpret and apply federal tax rules and regulations and to produce the required information necessary to prepare accurate returns. They would benefit from a system that modernizes and simplifies their tax compliance and reporting obligations.”
According to the National Federation of Independent Business, tax compliance costs are 65 percent higher for small businesses than for big businesses, costing small business owners $18 billion to $19 billion per year. In addition, nearly nine out of ten small businesses rely on outside tax preparers. With about half of the private sector workforce employed by a small business — a total of nearly 60 million Americans — these costs, along with tax rates as high as 44.6 percent, carry a heavy burden for small businesses.
“Record keeping and record retention are probably the most overwhelming administrative tasks (for small businesses),” said Donna Witherwax, tax partner at Grant Thornton in Phoenix. “Not only do they contribute to unproductive costs, they also divert attention from the more important tasks a small business owner should focus on. Small businesses often lack the resources to fully understand how the tax law affects their business.”
To put the need for reform succinctly: “Tax reform presents an opportunity to achieve tax code simplification and improve our nation’s present fiscal path,” Butler said.
To help put us on a better path, the House Ways and Means Committee released a set of proposals in March that are aimed at reforming tax laws for small businesses. As part of a broader, comprehensive tax reform package that would significantly lower rates for small businesses, the proposal would reform and try to simplify tax compliance for small businesses and provide certainty with respect to the ability of small businesses to recover certain costs immediately. These include widely supported reforms such as permanent Section 179 expensing and expansion of the “cash accounting” method, amongst other provisions.
“The most important thing for lawmakers to focus on in this tax reform is re-establishing rate equality,” Witherwax said. “That is, making sure that the current tax rate applied to income earned by an active small business that is organized as a partnership, S corporation or sole proprietorship is no higher than the rate applied to income earned by a normal C corporation. Normally, I would say they should focus on making it easier for small businesses to comply by providing simple and direct rules and additional safe harbors, as well as focusing on minimizing the record keeping burden. But this is not a normal tax reform process.”
Witherwax said the tax reform that is currently being discussed in Washington began as a quest to reduce the statutory corporate tax rate in order to address the disadvantage U.S multinationals face in competing with the multinationals of other nations as a result of the U.S. rate.
“There are good reasons to do that,” she said. “But reducing corporate rates alone would disadvantage those active small businesses that operate as partnerships, S corporations or sole proprietorships. Leaving their rate where it is while reducing the rate of their larger C corporation competitors would put these small businesses at a competitive disadvantage. A disadvantage that would be exacerbated if the revenue lost by reducing the corporate rate is offset by changes that eliminate some of the business tax benefits that small businesses rely on. For these reasons, in this tax reform, rate equality is the most important thing.”
The good new is that the discussion draft released by the House Ways and Means Committee is designed to provide more uniform tax treatment for pass-through businesses such as sole proprietorships, partnerships and S corporations. The draft also includes proposals that would spur investment in equipment needed to grow business operations by providing permanent expensing of investments and property; would simplify tax and accounting practices by expanding the use of the simpler “cash accounting” method to businesses with gross receipts of $10 million or less; would provide relief for start-up and organizational costs by establishing a unified deduction for these expenses; and make tax compliance easier for partners and S corporation shareholders by reordering and simplifying the due dates of tax returns for partners and S corporations.
To create reform that’s going to work, experts say, it’s vital that they solicit first-hand feedback.
“Lawmakers should ask small business owners and their tax advisors what changes they want,” said John Hanson, a tax attorney with Sacks Tierney in Phoenix. “ They are best suited to propose worthwhile changes because they are dealing with these issues daily.”
Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee that released the set of proposals aimed at reforming the tax laws for small businesses, said he encourages small business owners and stakeholders to review the discussion draft and to share feedback with their lawmakers and the Ways and Means Committee.
“More Americans get their paycheck from small businesses than any other type of business or government,” Camp said in a statement. “If we really want to strengthen our economy and put more money in the pockets of American workers, we must fix the Tax Code and how it treats small businesses. In addition to all the complexity these Main Street businesses face, Washington currently taxes them at top rates nearly 10 percentage points higher than their corporate counterparts. That’s simply unfair to small businesses … These are the businesses we see every day, where so many of our friends, family and neighbors work … They need and deserve a Tax Code that works for them.”
THE IMPACT OF REFORM
Ron Butler, partner, Ernst & Young: “A broader, comprehensive tax reform package that lowers rates and simplifies tax rules for individuals, small businesses and corporations could be a driving force for economic growth and job creation in the American economy.”
John Hanson, tax attorney, Sacks Tierney: “Tax reform that reduces the compliance burden on small business owners will allow them to invest more resources in their businesses, become more profitable and create more jobs.”
Donna Witherwax, tax partner, Grant Thornton: “It depends on the tax reform we get. If business rate equivalency can be restored, and a more efficient tax code adopted, small business could be a winner.”
Curtis A. Hildt, tax managing partner, Deloitte Tax LLP: “Small businesses will be able to focus their efforts toward business operations instead of weaving their way through a complex tax system.”