The rallying cry for tax reform goes something like this: We need a simple, straightforward tax code—no more expensive tax software, no more tax accountants, no more hours of complicated calculations—and a code that helps to lower taxes on the average person and business.
But on the other side of this appealing vision is a threat to programs built into the tax code that have major impacts on people and the communities in which they live—and those programs could disappear overnight. The low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) has enjoyed bipartisan support over its 26-year history, but determination to eliminate credits and deductions and bring down corporate rates could put even successful, popular credits like this one at risk.
Laying the foundation for tax reform
Congress has spent the last several months reviewing the tax code in preparation for tearing it apart and writing a new one. In early May, the House Ways and Means Committee’s tax reform working groups released a summary of their findings from reviewing their respective portions of the tax code and soliciting stakeholder feedback. The Senate also continues its systematic review of the tax code in a series of weekly internal discussions.
Hearings on tax reform are ongoing in both the House and the Senate. In late April, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on tax reform and residential real estate. Bob Moss, senior vice president of Boston Capital and chairman of the Housing Advisory Group, testified on behalf of the A.C.T.I.O.N. (A Call To Invest in Our Neighborhoods) Campaign—a grassroots coalition of more than 450 national, state, and local organizations dedicated to preserving and strengthening the LIHTC.
His testimony emphasized the extensive need that exists for affordable rental housing and how the LIHTC addresses it, the economic impacts that result, and the features that have made the program so successful. Joining the chorus were the National Association of Home Builders, the National Multi Housing Council, and even Reps. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) and Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who lauded the LIHTC as a paradigm example of a successful public-private partnership. But with all tax expenditures on the chopping block in pursuit of lower rates, a commendable track record may not be enough.
The drumbeat gets louder
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recently announced his retirement, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) will reach his term limit as chairman at the end of the 113th Congress, meaning both tax-writing committees will have new leadership in 2015. The clock is ticking for them to pass major comprehensive tax reform before passing the baton to new leaders.
Baucus and Camp broadened their stakeholder outreach effort in May by launching www.TaxReform.gov and speaking to the media about replicating the “Write Rosty” from 1985, when Congress last engaged in comprehensive tax reform negotiations. The public is encouraged to weigh in on tax reform by submitting 5,000-character stories or suggestions to TaxReform.gov, and every LIHTC stakeholder has a role to play in making sure the message from the housing credit industry is loud and clear. This may be the final stakeholder engagement effort before Congress drafts legislation.
With the United States set to run out of borrowing authority in late fall, some tax reform proponents are beginning to see the inevitable high-stakes debt ceiling negotiations as an opportunity to compel action on tax reform. House Republicans have floated a framework that would tie short-term increases of the debt ceiling to congressional action on tax reform, with a longer-term increase only after the president signs reform legislation. But President Obama, with one debt ceiling battle scar too many, has said he will not participate in any more debt ceiling negotiations. House Democrats came out against the idea as well, though Chairman Baucus indicated he may be more amenable.
Whether or not tax reform is tied to the debt ceiling, there is a high probability that markup of comprehensive tax reform legislation will occur in 2013, perhaps as soon as this summer. The fate of the LIHTC hangs in the balance, and it will only be saved if members of Congress believe—and hear from their constituents—that the program is an indispensable part of the tax code.
Peter Lawrence is senior director of Public Policy & Government Affairs for Enterprise Community Partners. Emily Cadik is a senior policy analyst at Enterprise, where she is focused on tax policy issues and the A.C.T.I.O.N. Campaign.