Updated February 28 at 8:42pm

Tax benefit restoration getting complicated

Renewal of important expired federal tax benefits for homeowners took a major step forward last week, but the route to final congressional approval is beginning to look longer – and potentially bumpier – than previously expected. More

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Tax benefit restoration getting complicated

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Renewal of important expired federal tax benefits for homeowners took a major step forward last week, but the route to final congressional approval is beginning to look longer – and potentially bumpier – than previously expected.

Here’s why. The Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly approved a package of tax code goodies that includes a two-year reauthorization of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, plus similar extensions for deductions of mortgage insurance premiums and energy-saving improvements to homes.

Mortgage debt relief is crucial for thousands of underwater owners who receive cancellation of a portion of their principal balances from banks in connection with loan modifications, short sales and foreclosures. Without an extension retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014 – which the Finance Committee package includes – these owners would be hit with federal income taxes on the mortgage amounts canceled.

Now for the bumps: The full Senate must still pass the so-called “extenders” bill containing the housing provisions. That vote could happen relatively soon – this spring – or could be put on a back burner based in part on the level of urgency the Senate leadership detects from the House side.

And here’s the message Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is certain to get from the House’s most influential tax legislator, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich.: Cool it. We’re not rushing. Camp says he’s more interested in reforming the entire federal tax code for the long haul rather than reapproving tiny pieces of it year after year.

He wants to look at the 50-odd special-interest tax benefits in the extenders bill – one by one – to determine whether they merit a place in the code. Among the breaks he plans to evaluate apart from the housing-related ones: Should the federal tax code provide financial subsidies to owners of race horses? TV and film producers? Auto race tracks? Rum producers in the Caribbean?

He’s got a point. Are all the now-expired tax subsidies for niche groups and industries, which sometimes cost billions of dollars in lost revenue to the Treasury, cost-effective? Do they benefit the economy as a whole or are they simply sops to well-shod lobbies? If they can be justified on the merits, fine, we’ll keep them. If not, they should disappear.

To achieve this analysis, Camp plans to conduct months of hearings and markups – a challenge given Congress’ already tight pre-election schedule. At the end of the process, it’s likely there will be fewer special-interest tax benefits in the House’s bill than the Senate’s. Republicans may also insist that whatever short-term special-interest provisions are approved be offset by revenue-raising measures – cutbacks in tax benefits – elsewhere in the code.

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