What has happened in Washington D.C.?
For the first time in a long time, there's been a spasm of bipartisan lawmaking and deal hatching that has averted government shutdowns and global hand wringing.
Last month's tax package is the latest example. It made permanent a number of tax breaks scheduled to expire practically every year, only to be extended at the last minute (or, in one case, after Jan. 1).
This kind of of jerk-chain legislation frustrated taxpayers and tax practitioners. As if the tax code wasn't confusing enough.
But this recent act of true governance stands to benefit all walks of life – teachers, parents, retirees with IRAs. And residents of that state north of the Oregon border that imposes no income tax and shall not yet be named.
It's a great way to kick off tax season. Here's another: Oregonians don't need to pay their state and federal tax bills until Monday, April 18 -- three days later than usual. That's thanks to Emancipation Day, a Washington-D.C.-only-holiday that falls on April 15 because the normal holiday, April 16, hits the calendar on a Saturday this year.
The extension deadline for filing your return also differs. It's Oct. 17 instead of Oct. 15. Still, you need to pay any tax you owe for 2015 by April 18. Otherwise, you face late-payment penalties .
"An extension to file is not an extension to pay," Oregon Department of Revenuespokesman Robert Estabrook said.
As Estabrook's colleagues and the Internal Revenue Service gear up to accept tax returns Jan. 19, let's look at what expiring federal tax breaks were made permanent.
Enhanced child tax credit. This credit provides $1,000 per child under age 17. For many taxpayers, the credit can be refundable, meaning it can produce a refund even when the taxpayer owes no tax. In 2009, Congress expanded the refundable credit by reducing the income threshold at which it could be claimed from $10,000 to $3,000. Now, that lower threshold has been made permanent.
American Opportunity Tax Credit. In 2009, this credit replaced the Hope scholarship credit. But it was slated to expire in two years. Now it's permanent. And no wonder: In 2013, 10.4 million federal taxpayers reaped $9.25 billion from this credit, or about $890 each, IRS data show.
The credit covers the first $2,000 of college tuition and materials and 25% of the next $2,000. That's a maximum of $2,500 for each of the first four years of college. Taxpayers whose modified adjusted gross income is more than $80,000 (or $160,000 for couples filing jointly) receive a reduced credit. Those whose income exceeds $90,000 (or $180,000 for couples) are ineligible.
Part of the credit is refundable for most taxpayers who qualify. By comparison, the Hope credit was smaller, wasn't refundable, phased out at lower income levels and was only available for the first two years of college.
Educators' deduction. Score one for teachers. Congress made permanent the $250 deduction for unreimbursed educator expenses, and also sweetened it a bit.
The deduction amount will now be indexed for inflation (it hadn't changed in years). And starting in 2016, primary and secondary teachers can deduct the cost of professional development courses. Counselors, aides and principals also can claim the deduction, though aides must work at least 900 hours a year.
It's a popular break. In 2013, nearly 33,400 Oregon taxpayers claimed the deduction, averaging $241, according to Oregon Department of Revenue data.
Sales tax deduction. Poor Washingtonians. They can't take itemized deductions for state income taxes like Oregonians can because THEY DON'T PAY INCOME TAX! Instead, Congress had allowed them to deduct sales taxes in lieu of income taxes. In 2013, nearly 850,000 Washington taxpayers deducted a total of $2 billion in sales taxes, IRS stats show.
That break had been scheduled to expire in 2014. It's now been reinstated for 2015 and all years forward. Washingtonians, I'm told, can either tally the actual taxes paid by adding up their receipts. Or they can use a table provided by the IRS. Lucky them.
Transit benefits. Congress finally brought some sanity to employer-provided transit perks. For 2015, employers could have provided workers a pre-tax benefit of up to $250 a month for parking, vanpool and transit passes. That will bump up to $255 in 2016. Had Congress not acted, vanpool and transit pass perks would've dropped to $130 while parking passes would've remained at $250.
Earned income tax credit. This credit provides a big boost for low- and moderate-income workers. It phases out as income increases. It also differs based on the number of children in a household. The credit for families with three or more children (45 percent of earnings up to $13,870) was set to expire in 2017. It's now permanent. So is a higher income phase-out amount for married couples filing jointly. Now, the credit will phase out for couples earning more than $23,630, instead of for those making more than $18,110.
Charitable IRA distributions. Retirees age 70-and-a-half and older can make tax-free donations directly to charities from their IRAs. This effectively reduces their annual required minimum distribution from their traditional IRAs and does not increase their adjusted gross income. This benefit is capped at $100,000 a year. It had expired at the end of 2014, but this move reinstates it for 2015 and makes it permanent going forward. The donation must be made directly from an IRA to the charity to qualify.
It mainly benefits seniors who don't itemize their deductions or who might, by reducing their required minimum distribution, also be able to reduce the amount of their Social Security income subject to tax. Talk to your tax adviser to see if it benefits you.
Temporary extensions: Several expiring breaks were merely extended through 2016, including deductions for higher education expenses and mortgage insurance premiums, certain energy-efficiency tax credits and an exclusion for mortgage debt forgiven during the financial crisis.
A few business tax breaks also were extended, either permanently or through 2019. Business owners should talk with their tax adviser about how those might help.
-- Brent Hunsberger is an investment adviser representative and certified financial planner in Portland. For important disclosures and information about Hunsberger, visit ORne.ws/aboutbrent. Reach him at 503-683-3098 firstname.lastname@example.org.