Fairer Tax Reporting, Finally

Sunday, 20 February 2011 13:14 By Gerald Epstein and Gerald E Scorse, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Income from wages has been reported to the Internal Revenue Service ever since World War II. Starting in 2011, income from stock market capital gains will effectively begin to get the same treatment.

This closes a loophole that cost the Treasury billions every year. It takes a big burden off taxpayers. And it never would have happened without a man the Left loved to hate.

He's Evan Bayh (D-IN), newly retired from the Senate. His Blue Dog politics rankled liberals, and he was trashed for giving up a seat that would flip to the GOP. All the same, Bayh made tax reporting fairer than it's ever been in America.

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He did it by passing a bill that requires brokers to report basis prices to the IRS. Basis prices are what investments cost going in, and brokers didn't have to turn over these numbers. They had to report proceeds, but not basis prices.

The only way to figure capital gains is to have both numbers, and do the arithmetic. For nearly a century, since the beginning of income taxes in 1916, capital gains income has been reported on the honor system. Now the IRS will get basis prices along with proceeds. Brokers won a gradual phasing in: new stock purchases this year, mutual funds in 2012, bonds and options in 2013.

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson recommended basis reporting to Congress, and it was her proposal that prompted Bayh to draft his bill. The Treasury was losing up to $25 billion a year through capital gains misreporting, and states were being stiffed additional billions. The reasons were no mystery. As Ms. Olson told the Wall Street Journal, "It seemed that people who wanted to comply with the law were finding it too hard, while those who wanted to skirt the law were finding it too easy."

It was easy faking numbers on tax returns. It was hard keeping basis records year after year, adjusting them for distributions and stock splits, even remembering where they were. Computers erased the problems; brokers are now required to keep the records and forward the final results.

Tax compliance for income that's reported to the IRS far exceeds compliance for self-reported income. Wage earners essentially report all their wages, and the reason is written on the W-2 forms they get every year: "THIS INFORMATION IS BEING FURNISHED TO THE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE." Compliance figures slump for every kind of self-reported income, including stock market capital gains.

When Bayh re-introduced his bill in 2007, he cited a study that found misreporting by more than a third of taxpayers with capital gains or losses. The Congressional Record for that day shows one other senator making the case for basis reporting. Let's listen in:

"It is estimated that $345 billion of federal taxes goes uncollected each year. This bill doesn't solve that full problem, but it is a step in the right direction. It reduces the federal deficit without raising taxes or cutting spending. It simplifies the tax filing process and reduces the chance of error or fraud. It applies what we know about the clear benefits of automatic reporting to the IRS - which is required now for wage income - to capital gains income as well.

"This bill makes sense. It's good policy. And I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting it and in helping to improve our tax code."

So said the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, on February 14, 2007.

 

Gerald E Scorse

Gerald E. Scorse helped pass a bill that tightens the rules for reporting capital gains*. He has an MBA from Baruch College.

*"The basis reporting legislation follows years of hard work by Prof. Jay Soled of Rutgers University, Prof. Joseph M. Dodge of Florida State University, and more recently ... Gerald E. Scorse, who read about the work of the two professors and decided to make this reform his cause." - Excerpt from David Cay Johnston's Tax Notes column of 10/13/2008.

Last modified on Sunday, 20 February 2011 13:35