With a Congressional budget in place, large-scale tax reform seems likely for the first time since 1986. As of this writing, the House and the Senate had both proposed legislation. While the House passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Senate remained in fierce debate over their plan’s provisions. In the latest news, the Senate had added a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate as a means of covering budget shortfalls.
The House and Senate plans differ almost as much as they agree. While both lower the corporate income tax to 20% from 35%, the Senate proposal delays that decrease until 2018. The Senate keeps, and the House eliminates, popular deductions for mortgage interest and medical expenses. The House version would cut the number of income brackets to four, the Senate to seven. The plans also differ in their treatment of standard deductions, corporate tax credits, and transition rules.
Either plan will face significant challenges. Estimates project that either proposal would increase the debt by at least $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Either plan would likely anger important populations—whether households hard-hit by lost deductions or corporations weakened by withdrawn tax credits. Non-profits, in particular, would suffer from an estimated loss of over $13 billion in yearly contributions under new incentive structures.
In today’s fractious political climate, executives may feel tempted to suspend action until the issue becomes clearer. After all, no one knows for certain whether a tax overhaul will pass both chambers at all, let alone what form it will take.
Yet the answer need not be inaction. Organizations can adopt tax strategies that are policy-agnostic. They can implement practical measures that will prepare them as well for a year-long gridlock as for sweeping legislative changes.
1. Understand the History
Most executives lived through 1986, when Congress passed bipartisan tax reform under President Reagan. It is imperative that decision-makers approach 2017 with an entirely different mindset. Trump is not Reagan, and where the 1986 bill was designed for revenue neutrality, today’s proposals attempt to cover budget shortfalls with controversial moves, like eliminating deductions enshrined in 1986, or repealing measures of the Affordable Care Act.
2. Ensure Up-to-the-Second Information
Since beginning this post, a variety of major events have impacted the likelihood of passage for current tax reforms. Even as the House passed its plan on November 16, the Senate’s bill drew opposition that could threaten its chances at passage. In order to navigate this mercurial landscape, organizations need hyper-current information and reliable analysis. Executives should leverage any resources they can, whether internal researchers or colleagues at larger and better-connected firms.
3. Know Who to Trust
Of the thousands of articles on tax policy output every day, precious few deserve your time and trust. Despite a much-publicized retraction earlier this month, the Tax Policy Center remains a reliable source for analysis and insight. The Tax Foundation provides more frequent updates and interactive graphics. Analysts should try to avoid news aggregators like Google News, where key developments can get lost in the flood of articles.
4. Model Possible Scenarios
In a 25-page memorandum on the topic, KPMG urges firms to:
Develop a high level economic model of the possible effects of tax reform on the specific business, using reasonable assumptions or alternative scenarios in situations in which details of blueprint are not clear.
These models do not need to hold up under academic scrutiny. They do, however, need to inform strategic anticipation. The extent of an organization’s modeling will determine its range of possible action. Thus, firms should choose their scenarios according to which aspects of proposed legislation will most impact them. A multi-national enterprise with large amounts of non-repatriated foreign income would pay special heed to proposals’ territorial design and one-time border tax. A social non-profit, on the other hand, would want to examine how altered deductions affect donors’ willingness to give.
5. Create Pre-Defined Action Plans
Detailed models allow organizations to create action plans. Take, for example, a non-profit that currently draws the majority of its funding from donations. The proposed increase of the standard deduction could draw more people away from itemized deductions, including that for charitable giving. As a result, non-profits would receive billions fewer dollars in donations than under the current tax code. Nonprofit A might plan to restructure its funding sources by applying for more grants this year or by pursuing greater efficiency in fundraising. Depending on grant deadlines, the organization might enact its plans before the beginning of 2018.
6. Optimize Deductions and Deferrals
Businesses should also consider low-risk preemptive measures. Accounting firm Grant Thornton advises that businesses should begin:
Deferring recognition on advanced payments or disputed income; and accelerating deductions for computer software, self-insured medical expenses, property taxes, payroll taxes, prepaid expenses and rebates.
Competing firm Crowe Horwath calls deferral planning “The obvious tax planning consideration.” If Congress fails to pass tax reform, deducting now or later will make little difference. If, on the other hand, tax reform passes, organizations that deduct and defer now will enter 2018 strong.