Tax Incentive Plans Quietly Taking Shape for Startups

Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:48pm

The technology boom of the 1990s that created a wave of new businesses and jobs was built on innovation that lawmakers would dearly love to revive in today’s sputtering economy.

Some on Capitol Hill are looking for that formula in the form of a modest package of tax incentives that would be aimed at a new generation of fledgling entrepreneurs. It’s a quiet effort right now while larger, more ambitious attempts at a broad tax overhaul take shape. But backers believe the roadblocks to a tax overhaul, including the partisan impasse on virtually every fiscal issue, may clear the way for modest but tightly targeted tax provisions aimed at startups.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., are sure to include incentives for startup businesses in the tax rewrite they are pursuing on parallel tracks. But the two men face a deep partisan split over whether a big bill should help pay for a debt deal, as Democrats insist, or meet the GOP demand of being revenue neutral.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri say there likely will be a rapid push for a new round of incentives for startups if the tax rewrite falters. It would be a follow-up to the expanded write-off for startup expenses that was included in a 2010 small-business jobs law and the easing of financial regulations in the 2012 startup financing law.

A new batch of startup incentives could be offered as an add-on to a year-end bundle of tax cut extensions or to a bipartisan proposal for manufacturing innovation centers. They also could be attached to a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage, which is opposed by Republicans and some business trade groups.

“There is bipartisan consensus that early stage startups have the most promise for rapid and high-quality job creation,” Coons said.

“It’s something we should do. I hope it doesn’t end up with some goal we’re unlikely to achieve, like overall tax reform,” Blunt said.

Both parties long have viewed the nation’s 28 million small businesses as keys to growth. Congress created the Small Business Administration in 1953 and began allowing small businesses to write off or expense some equipment purchases in 1958.

Although traditional small-business tax breaks have broad support, some economic experts such as John Haltiwanger, a University of Maryland professor, argue that the most potential for job creation comes from new ventures that rely on affiliated companies, lenders and investors.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit research group, estimates that about 514,000 new businesses a month were created nationally in 2012, compared to 543,000 a month in 2011. Dane Stangler, a spokesman for the group, says such fluctuations are driven by the economy’s usual ebb and flow. A slow rebound has opened up more job options for unemployed workers, meaning that fewer choose to be self-employed than during a recession.

Job growth remains relatively slow in the broader economy. But Haltiwanger says that although new businesses make up 3 percent of total employment, they account for nearly a fifth of newly created jobs.

Stanger and other experts say incentives would have the most impact on more stable startups.

With first-time employers in mind, President Barack Obama has backed a 2-year-old Startup America campaign that encourages joint efforts by the SBA, private donors, community colleges and universities to support entrepreneurs.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been focused on trying to help new ventures that are hamstrung by tight credit restrictions on bank loans. Concerns about the limited cash pool spawned measures in the 2012 law to increase access to capital markets. That allowed emerging growth companies with less than $1 billion in revenue, such as social media giant Twitter Inc., to make confidential filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission before public registrations of initial public offerings. It also allowed small businesses to sell $1 million a year of securities — with purchases capped at $2,000 for an ordinary investor — through crowd-funding online portals.

A study by Ernst & Young in April found the 2012 law had not sparked a jump in the IPO market. But it said EGCs relied heavily on confidential filings and were waiting for the implementation of other provisions.

Looking to do more, lawmakers are pushing for new measures that encourage university research, cut patent fees and increase visas for foreign investors and some foreign graduate students among ways of helping startups.

Both parties agree on the need for tax incentives, and Coons and his allies say such measures are in position to move, with or without an overhaul. He has backed a payroll tax credit for research-and-development costs. And Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan, has promoted a bill that includes an extension of the full exclusion for capital gains on qualified small-business stock held for more than five years.

For the most part, Camp and Baucus have argued for curbing tax breaks to pay for lower rates. But both have left the door open to sweeteners for small businesses.

As part of his draft framework, Camp proposed to return to the pre-stimulus cap of $250,000 on small-business expensing, and make the provision permanent. He offered a unified, expanded version of the deduction for startup expenses. The draft would streamline rules for S corporations, partnerships and limited liability companies with the aim of helping them cut costs and paperwork.

“We want to make sure they have the resources, the incentives, so that people feel confident to go out and take that risk, and begin a small business, or grow their small business, because that means jobs,” Camp said.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bob Casey, D-Pa., have folded several items from Camp’s to-do list into a $24.7 billion small-business tax package. The bill mirrors Camp’s plan on startup costs, small-business expensing and a higher gross receipts allowance for time-saving cash accounting. It would extend through 2014 50 percent bonus depreciation and the 15-year recovery period for leasehold, retail and restaurant improvements.

“If we come to the end of year, and there isn’t the beginning of consensus on tax reform and it hasn’t reached the point where we’re ready to vote on it, this would be a measure that could garner a lot of bipartisan support,” Casey said.

In the House, centrists in both parties such as Reps. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Ron Kind of Wisconsin also are backing combinations of incentives for small businesses.

Such bipartisan proposals face pushback from staunch conservatives such as Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a former top executive for a plastics manufacturer. He says that targeted incentives complicate the tax code and divert resources. “I hate Washington trying to micromanage economic activity,” Johnson said.

To allay such concerns and rally support for streamlining, Baucus and Camp have held up stand-alone tax measures. Both decline to discuss fall-back options, while urging action on a big bill.

“We have not seen the job growth that we need to see, either in the large or small business area. We need a comprehensive bill that makes a simpler, flatter, fairer tax code,” Camp said.