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Fiscal cliff deal also includes corporate tax breaks

  • January 5, 2013 - 6:04 PM

By now, we've heard all about the big stuff in the fiscal cliff bill that passed last week. The Bush tax cuts will become permanent for individual income below $400,000 and family income below $450,000. The sequester spending cuts will be delayed two months. But Congress also managed to include all sorts of corporate tax breaks and other arcane provisions. Here's a look at 10 of the more curious provisions:

1 A $9 billion "sop for Wall Street banks and major multinationals": Section 322, created in 1997, allows manufacturers and banks to defer taxes when they engage in a special type of transactions known as "active financing." The break now costs $9 billion per year, and critics claim it encourages firms to create jobs overseas. But it's a top lobbying priority for companies like GE and JPMorgan, who say that it helps them compete abroad, and it will get extended another year.

2 Rum tax: This item dates back to 1917. Congress currently levies an excise tax worth $13.50 per gallon on rum produced in or imported to the United States. Most of that money is transferred to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which use it to support their rum industries. In 2009, this tax raised $547 million. The arrangement was extended another year.

3 Cheaper offices for Goldman Sachs: The bill extends tax-exempt financing for the area around the former World Trade Center for another year. The provision was supposed to help fund reconstruction after 9/11, but a Bloomberg investigation found the bonds have mostly helped finance new luxury apartments, not to mention the construction of Goldman Sachs' new headquarters.

4 Help NASCAR build racetracks: The so-called NASCAR loophole, in place since 2004, allows anyone who builds a racetrack to receive a small tax benefit through accelerated depreciation. This tax break cost about $43 million the past two years and will get extended for another year.

5 Treat coal from Indian lands as an alternative energy source: The fiscal cliff deal has a bunch of provisions for clean energy. Notably, it extends a tax credit for wind power for one more year. (That credit will cost about $1.2 billion per year for 10 years.) But there's also a provision to continue subsidizing coal produced on Indian lands at about $2 per ton. While that will only cost about $1 million, it's a reminder that not all of the clean-energy provisions in the bill are entirely green.

6 Promote plug-in electric scooters: For years, Congress has been trying to promote electric cars through tax breaks and subsidies. But what about electric bikes and scooters? The bill extends a credit for "2- or 3-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles." However, they might well be illegal to ride in some areas.

7 Repair the railroads: Section 306 will extend a tax credit to railroads for maintenance work. Congress originally passed it because there was a worry that many of the hundreds of "short line railroads" would abandon their small sections of track, which would in turn fracture the national shipping network. This costs about $165 million per year.

8 Subsidize Hollywood films: The fiscal cliff bill renews "special expensing rules for certain film and television productions," at a cost of $75 million per year. Studios in Hollywood and elsewhere can deduct up to $15 million of their costs if more than three-fourths of the movie's production takes place in the United States.

9 Crack down on tax cheats in prison: The IRS has long worked with prisons to tamp down on fraud among prisoners who are filing tax returns. Yet as more states have been contracting out their jails and prisons to for-profit companies, the IRS has had difficulty sharing its data with private contractors. Never fear, section 209 allows the IRS to share its files with private prisons.

10 Incentives to take the bus or train: Not all of the lesser-known aspects of the fiscal cliff deal are seedy giveaways to big corporations. There's also a small tax break that gives people incentives to take mass transit. For the past year, the tax code has subsidized driving to work over taking transit. If you drove, your employer could cover up to $240 per month in parking expenses tax-free. If you took the bus, your employer could only cover $125 in expenses per month tax-free. The two benefits have now been set at equal levels at a cost of $220 million.

WASHINGTON POST

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