Local worries about fiscal cliff
Experts, taxpayers worry about effect if Congress, Obama fail to reach deal
Updated 11:07 pm, Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Contemporary artist Matt Roe gets inspiration for his paintings from what he sees and experiences. In the hard lines or soft brush strokes, there is social commentary.
Even though all of this creativity earns him less than $50,000, it's a sure bet that the rapidly approaching fiscal cliff with its political brinkmanship will slip into his work.
"It's absolutely ludicrous that two political parties that have different views can't come up with some common ground for the benefit of the American people," Roe said. "It's like a Mexican standoff, where both sides have their guns drawn and are in a stalemate, ready to kill each other. It's frustrating to watch."
The "fiscal cliff" describes what will happen at the end of the month if Congress and President Barack Obama fail to cut a deal to extend an estimated $221 billion in Bush-era tax reductions, and automatic spending cuts kick in as the government's debt ceiling reaches $16.4 trillion. Some economists predict that these twin events may be a knockout blow to the nation's fragile economy, driving it into a new recession.
Roe, who exhibits his work at New York City galleries and in Europe, has never made it into the stratrosphere of high-earning artists. Still, he's gotten by comfortably, living at his parents' home in Trumbull and working at a nearby framing shop.
"What I hear is that if these fiscal cliff changes happen, I won't get any (tax) refund, and that will hurt big time," Roe said. "Every year I get a tax refund of around $2,000. I rely on it. And I put that money away for the unexpected things that come up, like the repairs on my car."
The partisan-charged gulf in Congress affects taxpayers at every level in direct or indirect ways.
It's not just tax brackets on adjusted gross income. The divide also includes capital gains, payroll and estate taxes. The capital gains tax now stands at 15 percent, but it may jump to 20 percent, a move that alarms John Slater, a banker who is also chairman of Bridgeport's Republican Town Committee.
"If the capital gains tax goes up, people won't invest their money," Slater said. "This affects a lot of people that are within five years of retirement age or people who have retired. When they started investing years ago, they took risks and the reward now shouldn't be to tax them higher."
It's the uncertainity, Slater said, that worsens the situation.
What the showdown in Congress obscures is a deeper, more ominous fault line.
"We're spending all this time talking about really small things, like raising the top two tax brackets," he said. "The whole discussion is bizarre. We talk about job creation in terms of high income earners. That's just not true. The real job creators are in our economy are consumers. If we don't have strong demand for goods and services, households won't make purchases and businesses won't expand and add jobs."
If Congress doesn't take some action before the end of the year, Carstensen predicted that the country will slip into another recession.
The situation is even hard on the Internal Revenue Service.
"This year has been particularly challenging due to several unresolved tax issues," wrote Steven T. Miller, acting IRS commissioner, in a letter to U.S. Rep. Sander M. Levin, ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee. "When Congress takes action well after this planning process is under way, there is potential for substantial disruption to the filing season ahead."
With so much unknown, the IRS is unable to print some of its core forms. For instance, it doesn't know whether Congress will extend the Alternative Minimum Tax exemption amounts, which were $48,450 for individual filers and $74,450 for married taxpayers, with a patch that will allow for inflation indexing. Without that change, the AMT, which was established in 1969 to ensure that all taxpayers, even the most well-to-do, paid some taxes, a single filer could only have a $33,750 exemption and a married couple would only be allowed $45,000.
The upshot, according to the IRS, is that about 33 million taxpayers would pay AMT on their 2012 federal returns, about 28 million more than would be the case if the exemption ceilings stay at their 2011 levels.
As a result, taxpayers are flocking to accountants early this season in search of answers.
"Most people are asking me for my sense of what's going to happen. I tell them what I think is going to happen and if nothing happens how it will impact them," said Ryan C. Sheppard, a certified public accountant and partner with Michael J. Knight & Company in Fairfield.
Sheppard predicts that the top two tax brackets will rise from 33 percent and 35 percent, respectively, to 36 percent and 39.6 percent.
A decade ago, former President George W. Bush signed a law that allows people to inherit up to $5 million before any taxes apply. Beyond that $5 million exemption, under the Bush tax cuts, assets are taxed at 35 percent (assets passed between spouses or to charities are usually not subject to tax). If Congress takes no action, the estate tax exemption will drop to $1 million and the transferred assets will be taxed at 55 percent.
It costs a lot to live and work in Connecticut, particularly in Fairfield County, where housing and real estate taxes are steeper than other parts of the country, said attorney Jim Flaherty, a partner with Gager, Emerson, Rickart, Bower & Scalzo LLP in Southbury.
As Congress grapples with the cliff, Flaherty, who specializes in creating wealth succession plans for high net worth individuals and those with closely held businesses, is seeing an uptick in client calls seeking estate tax planning advice.
"A lot of high net worth individuals may be affected" by the expiration of the Bush cuts to estate taxes if the exemption drops to $1 million, he said. "Someone who owns a house, has a 401(k), some life insurance and a family business, where the bulk of their assets are tied, all of which are taxable for estate tax purposes, it's not difficult to have an estate worth more than $1 million."
On top of this, "Connecticut is an anomoly as it's one of the few states that still has a gift tax, so there are a number of issues and outcomes to consider that come into play."
In some instances, he said, it "may be advisable" to make gifts of property to reduce their potential estate. Whether you're financially secure or struggling to make ends meet, Flaherty said it make sense to consult with a tax adviser now.
Meanwhile, those least prepared to take another financial hit -- the unemployed -- will also be affected.
State labor officials said about 43,000 Connecticut residents could lose emergency unemployment benefits at the end of December unless Congress continues the program.
An additional 50,000 people obtain benefits as part of the state program and would not be able to collect beyond the 26 weeks provided by the program.
And those who are recently unemployed will be eligible to only collect 26 weeks of state unemployment insurance benefits if federal funding ends.
During the worst of the recession, Connecticut provided up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.
Obama headed back to the White House on Wednesday from his Hawaiian vacation to be available if the Senate comes up with a plan when it returns to Washington on Thursday.
Also Wednesday, House leaders planned a conference call to talk about bringing members back to Washington.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.