The U.S. Senate Finance Committee voted to revive almost all of the 55 tax breaks that expired Dec. 31, providing benefits for wind energy, U.S.-based multinational corporations and motor sports track owners.
Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said today he supports the package of U.S. tax breaks totaling more than $86 billion while adding that he wants to avoid future temporary extensions. Instead, he said, Congress should revamp the entire tax code.
“This will be the last tax extenders bill the committee takes up as long as I am the chairman,” said Wyden, who took over the panel earlier this year after Max Baucus became U.S. ambassador to China.
Senators said they lament the need to routinely extend tax breaks -- and they keep doing it. The research and development credit, which benefits companies such as Intel Corp. (INTC:US), has been expiring periodically since it became law in 1981.
“If something is good tax policy, and it encourages economic growth, then let’s make it permanent,” said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican. “If it doesn’t, then let’s let it expire.”
Lawmakers have been unable to find a way out of the temporary revival pattern. They typically reach compromise by agreeing to extend almost all breaks that expired, and that’s what happened today by voice vote.
“The challenge on taxes is to always find the common ground where you can move ahead,” Wyden told reporters after the vote. “What you saw today was the product of a bipartisan negotiation.”
Making the breaks permanent would require accounting for 10 years of forgone revenue. It would end the lobbying and fund-raising cycle that accompanies the lapsed provisions.
Lawmakers back provisions that are particularly important in their home states and trade support for other members’ favored breaks. These include a mass-transit commuting benefit that aids New York and New Jersey residents and the ability to deduct state sales taxes, which is important in states such as Washington and Florida that lack income taxes.
Those forces overcome the interest groups arguing against parts of the package.
Among them are the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s opposition to breaks for multinational corporations, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s call for a deficit-neutral bill and the small-government Heritage Foundation’s support for abolishing renewable-energy breaks.
The proposal, which faces an uncertain future in the full Senate and the House, would extend the tax breaks through Dec. 31, 2015.
Representative Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has said he wants to focus on making some provisions permanent and repealing others. He is holding a hearing April 8 on the issue.
Before the Senate Finance Committee began considering amendments, only a few items that expired Dec. 31 were excluded.
Wyden offered an updated proposal today with some breaks he had left out when the plan was released earlier this week, including the production credit for wind that benefits companies such as Vestas Wind Systems A/S (VWS) and a break for film and television production.
The TV production break, which allows companies to immediately write off expenses, is being expanded to include stage productions. It is backed by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, home to Broadway’s live theaters.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, the home state of Whirlpool, said industry officials supported the expiration of the break and prefer to address the issue as part of broader tax-code changes.
Wyden expanded a tax credit for hiring workers from disadvantaged groups to provide an incentive for hiring long-term unemployed workers.
Committee members adopted several amendments. One expands the research credit to make it more accessible for startup businesses that don’t earn profits, by letting them count the credit against payroll taxes.
The panel also voted to allow people who use bike-sharing services to qualify for a $20 a month exclusion from income to cover their costs that is currently available only for bike owners.
Democrats also voted to prevent Republicans from considering an amendment to delay the excise tax on medical devices for two years. Wyden, who said he shares Republicans’ concerns about the tax, said it was outside the scope of the measure.
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