More taxes for you, more breaks for corporate America
In the fiscal cliff deal, loopholes survived for most industries.
Published: January 5, 2013 11:14PM
Updated: May 5, 2013 11:32PM
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Driver Brad Keselowski's pit crew change tires during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 in Homestead, Fla. The race will determine NASCAR's top team. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Nearly $250 million for Hollywood. More than $330 million for the railroad industry. About $220 million for rum producers.

Although taxes are increasing for most Americans as a result of the deal last week between the White House and Congress to end the fiscal impasse in Washington, corporate America was more fortunate. A bevy of tax breaks and credits that had been scheduled to expire at the end of 2012 will be extended for a year, costing taxpayers $46.1 billion over the next decade, according to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation.

The preservation of these subsidies and deductions has become a Washington ritual in recent years, with lobbyists and companies and their allies on Capitol Hill securing their survival in the fine print of the tax code. Washington’s inability to close many of these loopholes is a sign of just how reluctant business is to sacrifice subsidies despite loud calls from many CEOs in recent months to raise taxes, cut spending and deal with huge budget deficits.

“Except for the people who like it, it’s a giveaway,” said Eric Toder, co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It’s hard to mobilize opposition, but the people who benefit from it benefit a lot.”

Many of the provisions survive because they are so obscure. A $62 million tax credit for employers in American Samoa benefits StarKist, which is the largest private employer in the South Pacific island chain, with nearly 2,000 workers there. The tax break was supported by Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who, as former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was an advocate for U.S. territories that lack formal Senate representation.

“We support the development credit, and it’s a key factor in our ability to maintain competitive operations in American Samoa,” said Mary Sestric, a StarKist spokesman. “This is a big priority for us.”

Corporations were keenly sensitive to changes in broader tax policy, in addition to benefiting from direct tax breaks. For example, Goldman Sachs distributed $65 million in stock to 10 senior executives in December instead of January, when the firm typically makes such awards. That move helped them avoid the higher taxes that will now be imposed on incomes of $400,000 or more.

Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, was among the most prominent executives who backed higher taxes as part of a broader deficit-reduction package. He and other business leaders met with President Barack Obama late last year as the White House sought support from corporate America during negotiations with Republicans in Congress.

Some subsidies, such as a break for research by companies, can have long-term benefits for the economy, defenders argue.

Others, such as the one that allows filmmakers to deduct the first $15 million in production expenses for movies made in the United States, are much more narrowly focused but have loyal supporters that manage to keep them alive year after year. Another beneficiary of congressional largesse is NASCAR, which will enjoy a $78 million subsidy for racetrack construction over the next 10 years.

“Once they get in, they tend to stay in,” said Alan Auerbach, director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California, Berkeley.

Besides the $46.1 billion in corporate incentives over the next 10 years, there is another $18.1 billion in breaks for alternative energy, much of that going to companies. Producers of biodiesel, for example, will reap more than $2 billion in tax breaks. And although it may not exactly be an alternative source of energy, producers of coal on Indian lands retained $1 million in tax breaks — a provision backed by Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Finance Committee.

The wind industry, a chief beneficiary of support from Washington, will get $12 billion in subsidies over the next decade. In fact, the benefits that were included for the wind sector are slightly broader than in previous years.

Under the new rules, contained in the legislation that Obama signed last Wednesday, new wind farms will be covered by a production tax credit or an investment tax credit similar to the ones that just expired, but the projects will not need to be finished by the end of this year to qualify; they simply must have been started in 2013.

The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, said in an email to its members that the change was made byCongress “specifically in order to accommodate the business timelines of our industry.” The business has been in a tax-driven boom-and-bust cycle.

The renewal of the tax benefits was pushed strongly by Bingaman, Baucus and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. When the Senate began considering “tax extenders,” or continuations of various tax breaks, wind advocates pushed to have all of them included.

“There always seemed to be some bipartisan support for this,” said Philip Tingle, a lawyer who specializes in energy taxes. “The element, the issue was, how they were going to pay for it.”

The renewal probably will cost the Treasury about $12 billion, although the wind industry insists that it will generate so much taxable activity that total tax revenue, including at the state and local level, will exceed the expenditure.

The industry undertook a lobbying campaign and says it generated more than 750,000 letters, emails and other communications with Congress. It took nearly 100 members of Congress on tours of wind farms and factories where components are built.

The issue may be more regional than partisan; according to the American Wind Energy Association, 80 percent of wind farms are in congressional districts represented by Republicans, as are 67 percent of the factories.