When Congress returns this week, one of the first items on its agenda will be finding a way to pay for extending unemployment benefits to the millions of Americans who find themselves jobless even as the economy begins a slow and fitful recovery. The Senate hopes to begin work on the “tax extenders package” that was approved by the House of Representatives on May 28, just as lawmakers left for the Memorial Day Recess.
We sympathize with Congress as it looks for ways to pay for extending jobless benefits. Indeed, roughly 25 percent of my professional colleagues are unemployed – in some states the percentage is even higher – and would benefit from any extension, as well as from other provisions in the legislation, such as Build America Bonds. And yet, as world markets tremble from global debt anxiety, Congress is rightly pre-occupied with finding ways to fund the extension without adding to the ballooning deficit.
Bad decisions usually result when two such countervailing forces are at work. None is worse than the effort to help fund the extension by raising taxes on individuals and small businesses that form S Corporations. So-called S Corporations help to create jobs and economic growth by reinvesting hard-earned capital back into their enterprises. S-Corporation owners often pay themselves a salary, to which Social Security and Medicare taxes apply. But profits that are paid to the owner as a shareholder are not subject to payroll taxes. They will be for many S corporations, however, if this short-sighted provision passes and is signed into law by the President.
This type of tax hike comes at a time when many people – out of necessity due to layoffs and restructurings throughout the economy – are forming their own home-based consultancies, web design firms, landscaping enterprises and the like. If they structure themselves as an S Corporation – and many of them do – they would be caught up in this new tax just as they are planning to set up shop, hire staffers and buy the equipment they need to get started.
That is certainly the case in the architecture profession. We are struggling to find ways to restructure and resuscitate our careers and livelihoods after the collapse of the real estate market. Many of us operate as S Corporations, because it allows us the flexibility to compete in world markets and retain and attract the talent that has kept American architecture the envy of the world. We may be forced to lay off staff or stop hiring new staff to pay the new tax – even though this provision is in a “jobs” bill. The provision is particularly troubling in that it specifically calls out S corporations with three or fewer key employees.
We applaud Congress’s effort to find a way to extend unemployment benefits for individuals who need them. But as the economy begins to recover, now is the worst time to raise taxes on a sector that is a catalyst for job growth in the design and construction industry. After 27 consecutive months of contracting, the American Institute of Architects in May reported that architectural billings have trended upward for the third consecutive month. That’s an indication that new construction could be on the rise in nine to 12 months, which would create more jobs and advance our nation’s economic recovery.
Rather than hike taxes, Congress should enact legislation that generates revenue with little or no cost to the Treasury. One such bill is H.R. 5249, the Capital Access for Main Street Act of 2010, introduced by Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Mike Coffman (R-CO). This legislation would change accounting rules for community banks with less than $10 billion in assets as they work with borrowers to renegotiate loan terms, avoid large sums of commercial foreclosures, and free up credit that can be used more constructively.
Unscrupulous businesses do use S corporation status to avoid paying their proper share of taxes and they should be caught and punished. But the Internal Revenue Service is already empowered to address that issue. This tax hike lumps together the good and the bad, penalizing thousands of honest small businesses that follow the rules. We strongly urge Congress not to support this inappropriate tax increase.
George H. Miller is president of the American Institute of Architects, based in Washington, D.C.