The $792 billion tax-cut bill Congress passed before heading home for summer recess last week is:
A. Guaranteed a veto by Bill Clinton once it hits his desk in September.
B. Loaded with goodies for just about everybody except homeowners with special tax problems.
C. Likely to be followed by a second attempt at a 1999 tax-cut bill that could--but may not--be more helpful.
D. All of the above.
The answer is D--all of the above. The bill that passed the Senate by just one vote did include a handful of items designed to solve homeowner difficulties with the federal tax code, especially those of workers sent overseas by employers.
But on the whole, the bill is the legislative equivalent of the East Coast drought: slim pickings. Here's a quick overview of what did and did not get into the final package. Let's start with what did:
* Reform of home-sale rules for military, foreign service and private employees transferred overseas for extended periods. Under the current tax code, homeowning families sent abroad often run afoul of the time calculation requirements for capital gains savings. Those rules allow taxpayers who have owned and occupied their principal residence for two of the past five years to exclude up to $500,000 (a married couple that files jointly) or up to $250,000 (single filers) of their profits from taxation after a sale.
That rule has proved troublesome for military and other personnel who haven't lived in their homes for the required two years.
The bill that Congress passed would eliminate the problem by "suspending" the time of their overseas assignment from the five-year calculation. To illustrate: If you had owned your home for many years and then got transferred to Europe for four years, current rules would credit you with occupying your house for just one of the past five years. The new bill would erase the four years spent abroad from the time clock, allowing you to reach back in time to come up with the necessary two-year occupancy and ownership standard.
* New tax incentives for restoring historic homes. Buyers of older town houses, detached homes, condominiums and cooperatives in historic neighborhoods in small towns and cities could qualify for modest tax relief under Congress's bill. The legislation allows such purchasers to deduct 50 percent of the expenses incurred in renovating their houses, up to a maximum of $50,000. The fine print of the bill includes language sharply limiting the attraction of the deduction, however, including "recapture" of all or part of the taxes avoided if the property is sold within five years.
By contrast, bills backed by bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate--but rejected in the final bill--would have created a generous new preservation incentive program, a tax credit worth up to $40,000 per house renovation, to stimulate mass renovations of deteriorating homes located in hundreds of urban and rural historic districts nationwide.
Now for what never made it into the 1999 tax bill:
* Relief for thousands of homeowners who sell homes at a loss because of market conditions, illness or loss of job. The current tax code hits those hapless sellers with a double whammy: Not only are they prohibited from claiming a capital loss for tax purposes, as they could if they sold stocks or bonds at a loss. But if they persuaded their lender to cancel any balance remaining on the mortgage after the sale proceeds are paid, the federal tax code treats that cancellation of debt as "income" to the sellers. They are expected to pay federal income taxes on all debt the mortgage lender forgives. Talk about hitting people when they're down!
Bipartisan bills in both the House and Senate--ignored in the final bill--would have provided relief to shellshocked sellers, exempting from taxation whatever mortgage amount their lender didn't collect, provided the sale proceeds were insufficient to pay off the loan balance.
* Relief for "surviving spouses" who sell the family home more than a year after the death of a spouse. Under current law, according to the American Association of Retired Persons, many older sellers miss out on their full capital gains exclusion because they sell as "singles"--widows or widowers--years after a spouse's death, rather than as a married joint-filer during the tax year of the spouse's death. For sellers in high-cost, high-appreciation areas such as California, New England and the mid-Atlantic, the difference between a single person's exclusion (up to $250,000) and a married joint-filer's (up to $500,000) can be critical.
The upshot for reforms like these? Hope for better treatment in a post-veto second 1999 tax-cut bill. But don't hold your breath.