But Congress also managed to stuff all sorts of corporate tax breaks and other arcane provisions into the bill, covering everything from electric scooters to NASCAR racetracks to taking the subway to work. Most of these tax breaks already existed — they're just being extended again for another year or two, at a total cost of roughly $77 billion.
Here are 10 of the more curious tax provisions in the fiscal cliff bill:
1. A $9 billion "sop for Wall Street banks and major multinationals."
Section 322 of the bill allows manufacturers and banks to defer taxes when they engage in a special type of financial transactions known as "active financing." The break costs $9 billion per year, and critics claim it encourages firms to create jobs overseas. But it's a lobbying priority for companies like General Electric and JPMorgan, who say that it helps them compete abroad, and it will get extended another year.
Now, there are a ton of other costly business tax breaks in the deal, too, from tax credits for research and development to bonus depreciation (which studies have found are ineffective at stimulating the economy).
2. A rum tax for Puerto Rico.
Congress currently levies an excise tax worth $13.50 per gallon on rum produced in or imported to the United States. Most of that money is transferred to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to support their rum industries. In 2009, this tax raised some $547 million. The cliff deal would extend this arrangement another year. (By the way, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in the House, Pedro Pierluisi, thinks this tax set-up is too favorable to rum distillers.)
3. Cheaper office space for Goldman Sachs.
Section 328 extends tax-exempt financing for the "Liberty Zone," the area around the former World Trade Center in New York City, for another year. This provision was supposed to help fund reconstruction after 9/11. Yet a recent Bloomberg investigation found the bonds have mostly helped finance new luxury apartments, not to mention the construction of the new Goldman Sachs headquarters. Developers say the bonds have helped revitalize downtown Manhattan, but there's a fierce debate over how they've been used.
4. Help NASCAR build racetracks.
The so-called NASCAR loophole allows anyone who builds a racetrack to receive a small tax benefit through accelerated depreciation. This tax break cost roughly $43 million the past two years and will get extended for another year. Supporters claim the break is necessary so that NASCAR can compete on a level playing field with other theme parks.
5. Treat coal from Native American lands as an "alternative energy source."
The fiscal cliff deal has a ton of provisions for clean energy — notably, it extends a key tax credit for wind power for one year, thus preventing the U.S. wind industry from downsizing next year. (That credit will cost about $1.2 billion per year for 10 years.)
But the production tax credit isn't just for renewable energy sources like wind. There's also a provision, section 406, to keep subsidizing coal produced on Native American lands at about $2 per ton. This isn't a huge deal (it will only cost about $1 million). But it's a reminder that not all of the clean-energy provisions in the bill are entirely green.
6. Promote plug-in electric scooters.
For years, Congress has been trying to promote electric cars through various tax breaks and subsidies. But what about electric scooters? Section 403 extends a credit for "2- or 3-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles." The New York Observer recently reported that e-bikes are running rampant in New York City, used for everything from Chinese food deliveries to expensive joyrides. Only problem? They're illegal in the state.
7. Repair the railroads.
Section 306 will extend a hefty tax credit to railroads for maintenance work. Congress originally passed this credit because there was a worry that many of the hundreds of "short line railroads" would abandon their small sections of track, which would fracture the national shipping network. This credit costs about $165 million per year and will survive another year.
8. Subsidize Hollywood films.
The fiscal cliff bill renews "special expensing rules for certain film and television productions," at a cost of some $75 million per year. Studios can deduct up to $15 million of their costs if more than three-fourths of the movie's production takes place in the United States. (They can get up to $20 million in deductions if they produce the film in a low-income community.)
9. Crack down on tax fraud in prison.
The Internal Revenue Service has long worked with state and federal prisons to crack down on fraud among prisoners who are filing tax returns. But as more states have been contracting out their jails and prisons to for-profit companies, the IRS has had difficulty sharing data with private contractors. Section 209 allows the IRS to share its files with private prisons.
10. Provide incentives for commuters to take the bus or train.
For the past year, the tax code has subsidized driving to work over taking transit. If you drove, your employer could cover up to $240 per month in parking expenses tax-free. If you took the bus, your employer could only cover $125 in expenses per month tax-free. The two benefits were set at equal levels for a brief period after the stimulus bill, and they've just been set at equal levels again for 2012 and 2013. There's some evidence that this change induces more people to take transit to work. This item will cost $220 million.
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