Friday, March 16, 2012

Road to Somewhere: Tax Changes in the Senate-Passed MAP-21 Transportation Bill

When I filled my gas tank the other day, regular was still below $4 per gallon. The difference between the price I paid and $4 seems to have diminished faster than I would have preferred. Anyone who has watched the price of gasoline increase over the past year can understand why the business standard mileage rate increased from 51 cents per mile for travel during the first half of 2011 to 55.5 cents per mile for travel in the second half of 2011. As of January 1, 2012, the standard mileage rate is 55.5 cents per mile. If the price of gas continues to increase, the standard mileage rate will probably increase again.

The federal excise tax on gasoline is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, and there are 15 days left before current transportation funding and the authority to collect the federal gas tax that supports that funding expires. Congress is now paying close attention to the March 31 deadline.

The Senate voted on March 14 to pass an 18-month transportation bill, known as S. 1813, the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act" or MAP-21. (MAP-21 sounds more like a food additive, a genome, or a distant star than the name of a bill.) Although the legislation primarily overhauls a number of federal highway-related programs, the bill does contain some important tax changes.

Here are some of the tax changes contained in the Senate-passed transportation bill. This is not a complete list.

Parity for employer-provided mass transit and parking benefits. For 2011, there was parity for exclusion from income for employer-provided mass transit and parking benefits. The exclusion was $230 per month for each of these breaks. However under current law, for 2012, the exclusion is $240 for qualified parking (due to an inflation adjustment) but only $125 for employer-provided transit and van-pooling benefits. Under the bill, effective for months after December 31, 2011, the 2012 exclusion amount for employer-provided transit and van-pooling benefits would be increased from $125 to $240.

Funding break for employers maintaining pension plans. As a result of the current, low interest rate climate, pension plan contributions have been very high, and there is concern in Congress that this will lead to more company layoffs or pension plan freezes. Under the bill, plan liabilities would continue to be determined based upon corporate bond segment rates, which are based on the average interest rates over the preceding two years. However, for plan years beginning in calendar year 2012, for purposes of the minimum funding rules, the segment rates would be adjusted up or down, as necessary, to an amount equal to either 90% or 110% of the 25-year historic average of interest rates, whichever is closest. In today's low-rate environment, the immediate effect of this change would be to raise interest rates for funding purposes and thereby lower the minimum required pension contribution. For plan years beginning in calendar year 2013, the interest rate "corridor" would expand in 5% increments each year until it reaches 30% above and 30% below the 25-year historic average of interest rates.

AMT relief for private activity bonds. Tax-exempt interest on private activity bonds issued after the enactment date and before January 1, 2013, would not be an item of tax preference for purposes of the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Additionally, tax-exempt interest on private activity bonds issued after the enactment date and before January 1, 2013, would not be included in the corporate adjusted current earnings (ACE) adjustment.

Longer write-offs for leased highway property. States may contract with a private entity to lease an existing highway or build a new one, and then operate the highway for a number of years. Although these transactions generally are structured as a lease (plus grant of a franchise permitting the private entity to collect tolls), the private entity is treated as the owner because it has the burdens and benefits of ownership. Under provisions of the bill, for leases entered into after the enactment date, the highway property would have to be depreciated over 45 years (instead of 15), and the cost of granting the franchise to collect tolls would have to be amortized over a period that is not less than the term of the applicable lease (instead of 15 years under Code Sec. 197).

Revocation or denial of passport of individuals owing more than $50,000 in back taxes. Effective on January 1, 2013, the bill would authorize the government to deny the application for a new passport or renewal of an existing passport when the individual has more than $50,000 (indexed for inflation) of "seriously delinquent tax debt." A seriously delinquent tax debt does not include a debt that is being paid in a timely manner under an agreement with the IRS or if the collection of the debt is on hold because of a collection due process hearing. The government also could revoke a passport upon reentry into the U.S. for such individuals.

In addition, the provisions of this bill allow the IRS to impose a levy of up to 100% (up from the current law's 15%) against Medicare service providers with tax delinquencies.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives. It remains to be seen if all of the tax provisions in the Senate bill will be present in the final legislation. While the transportation bill works its way through the House, do not be surprised if the price of regular gas soon exceeds $4 per gallon. Once that threshold is exceeded, Congress may have some political incentives to add other provisions to this bill.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

RTRP Rules Challenged

The Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice, on behalf of a couple of tax preparers, is challenging the Internal Revenue Service’s authority to regulate tax return preparers. The Institute plans to sue the IRS asking for an injunction against enforcement of the new Register Tax Return Preparer (RTRP) regulations. They claim that requiring tax preparers, who are not CPAs, Attorneys or Enrolled Agents, to pass a licensing examination (there is a fee of $116 to take the exam) and attend 15 hours of continuing education courses annually, will deprive them of their right to earn a living.

Well, I can tell you from personal experience: some of them need to be deprived.

When I was growing up, my dad was a struggling small business owner. He was one of those individuals who used an unregulated tax preparer. One year, the errors the preparer made on his return were so egregious that the IRS audited the return. Because of the nature of the errors, the agent went back and audited all open years. As a result my dad received a refund of over $1,000, which was a lot of money back in the 1960s, especially for someone like my dad who had struggled each year to pay those taxes.

There are three ways the group says these new regulations will negatively impact tax preparers and their clients:

1. It will put some tax return preparers out of business.

2. It could cause a financial hardship for their lower income clients resulting from the increased fees.

3. Their clients may have to find a new tax preparer.

My responses to the group’s allegations are as follows:

1. So be it. If they can’t pass a basic competency test they should not be preparing tax returns.

2. I don’t buy this. There are half a dozen or so entities that provide free tax return preparation, including the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. I realize that the free tax return preparation programs are primarily for the most basic tax returns, but if a return is more complex than a basic return you need the services of a qualified tax preparer. (See response 1 above.)

3. If they were using a qualified tax return preparer in the first place this would be a moot point, otherwise: See response 1 above.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

RTRP Test Validation Concluded

The Internal Revenue Service has just announced that it has begun providing test results to tax return preparers who have taken the new return preparer competency test. Those who pass the test and a tax compliance check will be given a new designation: Registered Tax Return Preparer (RTRP).

Testing began in November 2011 and has been in a calibration phase since that time as the IRS validated the test questions and established the passing grade. The calibration phase has now ended. The test has a total of 120-question. A perfect score is 500. Preparers must score at least 350 (70%) in order to pass the exam. The test is part of a larger IRS effort to ensure competency and professional standards in the tax preparation industry. All RTRPs must also complete 15 hours of continuing education annually.

Although preparers have nearly two years to take the test (must pass the exam by December 31, 2013), the IRS encourages them to complete the requirement as soon as they can. Preparers with a testing requirement can schedule the test by accessing their PTIN account at The test can be taken at more than 260 sites for a fee of $116. However, the IRS has announced that testing will be suspended for a two-week period beginning April 1 and resume on April 16, 2012. You can find more details about the test at

If you're planning to take the test, check out the Registered Tax Return Preparers Competency Examination Prep Course from Gear Up, a one-day, comprehensive instructor-led course designed to provide you with the training you will need to pass the exam. Currently available this May or June in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, and New Jersey; click to view more information or call 800.231.1860.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Top 10 Ways to Manage Tax Season Stress

Tax season for me was always like a marathon, beginning in mid February and crossing the finish line on April 15. It was long hours, lots of coffee, and plenty of stress. I remember working late nights as the deadline approached and then around 10:00 p.m. on April 15 the managing partner would gather up all of the extensions for those returns we just didn’t have time to complete and made a mad dash for the local post office. So following is my top ten list of ways to reduce or at least manage your tax season stress.

1. Get rid of bad clients. Fire those clients that are not profitable, never have their information to you on time and usually cause you the most stress. We all have them, so do it now before tax season begins.

2. Organize your office. Having a disorganized workspace will only add to your stress, especially when a client calls and you can’t quickly find his or her file.

3. Hire a personal assistant. Having someone who can run errands for you will significantly reduce your stress.

4. Exercise and eat right. You will find that if you eat three healthy meals a day and exercise regularly you will reduce your stress and actually be more productive. But you have to do it consistently.

5. Get to the office early. Come in to the office thirty minutes to an hour before regular office hours. Use this time to get your day organized, respond to e-mail or do research while the office is quiet.

6. Take short breaks. Meditate for five or ten minutes, stand up, do a few exercises or take a walk around the block and just relax. Don’t think about work.

7. Prioritize your tasks. Time consuming but relatively unimportant tasks can consume a lot of your day. Focus on those returns that you can’t delegate to a junior staff person. Don’t jump from one return to another. Try to finish one before you start the next.

8. Set client deadlines. Manage your clients don’t let them manage you. Work on the returns of those clients who meet their deadlines. If the client doesn’t have their data to you when requested, file an extension. Don’t work till midnight to complete the return for a client who did not get his or her information to you when requested.

9. Finish before the deadline. Schedule your clients so that you have time to complete their returns a day or two before April 15. This is a built-in cushion for any unexpected problems and should reduce your level of stress created from last minute crises.

10. Make April 16 and/or April 15 an official holiday. A firm I once worked for made April 16 an official firm holiday. I always looked forward to that holiday as a chance to unwind and think about nothing relating to work.

So, put your running shoes on, see which of these suggestions you can use to reduce your stress level, and look forward to a less stressful tax season.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

GAO Makes Major Changes to 2011 Government Auditing Standards

On December 21, 2011 the GAO issued the final revised 2011 Government Auditing Standards (The Yellow Book). Following is a summary of the major changes to the standards.

• Added a conceptual framework for independence to provide a means for auditors to assess their independence to activities that are not expressly prohibited. The conceptual framework requires auditors to make independence determinations based on facts and circumstances that are often unique to specific audit environments. The conceptual framework achieves further harmonization with AICPA and international standards.

• Removed specific references to personal, external, and organizational impairments, and overarching independence principles (GAGAS 2007). However, the underlying concepts related to these categories have been retained in the new conceptual framework for independence.

• Established requirements for auditors performing nonaudit services for entities they audit, to document their assessment of whether management possesses suitable skill, knowledge, or experience to oversee the nonaudit service (3.33-3.44).

• Revised substantially the guidance on nonaudit services that always impair an auditor’s independence with respect to audited entities and on certain nonaudit services that may be permitted under appropriate conditions (3.45-3.58).

• Added a summary of requirements for documentation necessary to support adequate consideration of auditor independence incorporating requirements applicable under the new conceptual framework (3.59).

• Removed certain SAS and SSAE requirements that were repeated in GAGAS.

• Discussed separately the three categories of attestation engagements, (1) examination, (2) review and (3) agreed-upon procedures. Auditors are not permitted to deviate from the reporting elements prescribed by the AICPA.

• The reporting requirements for fraud now include only those occurrences that are significant within the context of the audit objectives for performance audits.

The numbers in parentheses refer to paragraphs in the 2011 Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS) unless otherwise noted.

The effective date for financial audits and attestation engagements is for periods ending on or after December 15, 2012. The effective date for performance audits is for audits beginning on or after December 15, 2011. Early implementation is not permitted.