Congress has been twisting itself into knots to pass 70-odd special interest “expiring provisions” this spring, though without success. These provisions that have come within one or two votes of being extended one more time are almost all special-interest provisons, providing tax breaks or direct cash subsidies to folks like biodiesel producers and race-track operators.
Meanwhile, the grandaddy of all expiring provisions goes largely unmentioned. Without new legislation, 24 million additional taxpayers will pay alternative minimum tax this year. That will happen because the AMT exemption for joint returns will fall from $70,950 to $45,000, and from $46,700 to $33,750 for single filers.
The AMT is a shadow tax system with fewer deductions and credits and a different rate schedule; it only applies when it gives a higher tax than the “regular” income tax. The reduction of regular tax rates in 2001 brought the regular and AMT brackets much closer, threatening to bring millions of voters into the AMT system. Congress has been passing “patches” to raise the AMT exemption for a year or two at a time since 2001 to avoid that. The last “patch” expired at the end of 2009.
An unpatched AMT would hit hardest taxpayers in the $100,000-$500,000 income range. Congress doesn’t want to anger that many potential campaign contributors. But where will Congress find the $68 billion or so of income that the AMT is budgeted to raise next year without a patch? The six month unemployment extension failed yesterday in the Senate because it would have increased the deficit by $34 billion.
So what will happen? Presumably an AMT patch will pass to appease voters as the election approaches, deficits be damned. Still, that’s not certain, especially in the current political environment.
So what can taxpayers do? They should start by projecting their tax for 2010. If you have one, your tax preparer is likely to have software to enable you to run the projection. If you use home tax software, it may also include a tax projection feature. Otherwise, you will have to use a 2009 copy of Form 6251, but using the reduced 2010 exemption amounts. Then you should fiddle with some items that affect AMT:
• The timing of your state and local tax payments.
• The timing of your miscellaneous itemized deductions.
• The timing of your capital gains, including capital losses.
Don’t be surprised if you find you have alternative minimum tax no matter what you do, especially if you live in a high-tax state. Then call your Congresscritter and ask for your patch.