States argue with mid-tax season unemployment tax advantages

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Donna Borak

The $ 1.9 trillion stimulus plan provides tax breaks for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, but the path to similar state tax relief won’t be so easy for many.

The package, signed by President Joe Biden Thursday, allows individuals to exempt US $ 10,200 from their federal taxes on unemployment benefits – a change that creates complications for state tax authorities who will have to decide if and how to change the mid-filing season change should be applied.

Those who are compliant need to figure out how to get the relief for those who have already filed while potentially coping with the billions in tax revenue lost. Those who don’t risk confusing taxpayers who may inadvertently underpay their state taxes because they don’t realize the benefit only applies at the federal level. They would also block aid to millions of people at a time when it is needed most – about 40 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits in 2020.

“The exclusion of US $ 10,200 unemployment benefits from federal taxation creates incredible complexity and uncertainty at the state level,” said Jared Walczak, vice president of government projects at the Tax Foundation’s Center for State Tax Policies.

The faster states act, the better they will be, said Kristie Lowery, head of EY Employment Tax Advisory Services.

State tax administrators are reviewing the 600-page discharge bill to understand the federal changes so they can decide how to proceed while awaiting further instructions from the Internal Revenue Service.

“We don’t know how to interpret something we don’t have the language for,” said John Valentine, Utah Tax Commissioner and President of the Federation of Tax Administrators. “We go through a number of people trying to see how this affects our system. We haven’t all worked out yet, we just haven’t made it. “

Meet challenges

About two dozen states have what is known as “rolling compliance,” which means that they automatically adopt changes to the federal tax law. Those who tax unemployment benefits – which most states with an income tax belong to – will meet recent pandemic relief unless they take action, he said.

Compliant states need to figure out how to customize their tax software, forms and instructions at the height of the filing season, and decide how best to get the help into the hands of individuals, especially those who have already filed tax returns and paid unemployment taxes Compensation now exempt. According to IRS data, nearly 56 million federal tax returns have been filed as of March 5.

Valentine said changing programming in the midstream was problematic. Utah, a rolling compliance state, has decided that anyone wishing to claim the unemployment benefit tax break will get an amended declaration and get a refund that way, he said.

The added burden of government filings is one of the reasons the IRS has come under increasing pressure to postpone income tax deadlines. For one, Maryland acted unilaterally to extend Thursday’s state income tax deadline.

“This expansion is logistical for states as they need to change their forms,” ​​said Jamie Yesnowitz, a state and local tax expert for Grant Thornton’s Washington National Tax Office. “So Maryland is stepping back aggressively and saying, ‘OK, we want to be one step ahead of this problem.'”

It would be complicated for states to devise a way to automatically send reimbursements to people who have overpaid – with no additional registration requirements – as individuals from multiple states can receive unemployment benefits, Walczak said.

This means that taxpayers with 2020 unemployment income, many of whom may still be unemployed, will have to wait a while before they can see the money from the new Covid-19 aid. And changing returns often comes at a cost.

“You have to prepare another return or pay someone else to do it,” Lowery said. “That is problematic for them. These are people who are unemployed. I doubt they have a lot of income. From that perspective, it’s not a good situation. The timing is just terrible. “

Hit to State Revenue

Compliant states are also likely to have a huge impact on tax revenues due to the new pandemic relief.

Walczak said unemployment benefits would be responsible for collecting around $ 12 billion in state income taxes in the 35 states that levy unemployment benefits taxes in 2020 alone. He said the $ 10,200 exemption for some people could cut that amount significantly.

“We could be talking about a lot of money,” said Richard C. Auxier, a senior policy associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, who focuses on state and local tax policy, budgets, and other financial issues.

“And in states where there is a lack of money, they have to decide whether to make this part of their code just based on the sales issue,” he said.

Not conform

States that don’t automatically adjust federal tax changes will have their own share of problems, experts said.

You must also consider revising the tax forms and instructions, but for a different reason. People may not know that while they can exempt $ 10,200 from unemployment benefits for federal tax purposes, they need to add it back in for their state taxes, Walczak said.

So states will want to figure out how to make this clear so that people don’t underpay at the state level, he said.

Regardless of whether states are compliant or not, education will be vital in this last half of the enrollment season.

“There are so many moving parts here that it’s going to be really important that everyone is communicative and helps people understand them,” said Auxier.

“Fear” of raising taxes

Confusion creates new fear for taxpayers and contributes to an already stressful time for many.

Julie Pai, 46, a food service worker who worked more than 60 hours a week at both of her workstations at John F. Kennedy International Airport, has been unemployed for over a year. She used up her savings account and amassed a massive $ 16,000 in credit card debt. And even though taxes were withheld from her weekly unemployment check, she still owes $ 1,650 in state taxes.

“This bailout completely left out these single, middle-class unemployed who are not children,” Pai said. “The government left us behind when we needed help.”

32-year-old Stephanie Freed, who lost her job as an assistant to a production electrician and helped run shows for Snoop Dogg and Flo Rida as well as New York Fashion Week, was the co-director of ExtendPUA, a group that campaigned for stronger The city’s entertainment industry uses unemployment benefits and tax breaks for the federal government.

“We are trying to survive from unemployment,” said Freed, who has been unemployed since March and lives in New York. “Most of us have been unemployed for a year at this point. So tax bills are not on the agenda when we try to pay our rent in New York City and pay for groceries. “

It remains unclear whether New York will consider making changes if lawmakers negotiate a budget deal before April 1, which will leave unemployed citizens in financial limbo and owe many thousands of dollars.

“Personally, I haven’t paid my taxes yet because I’m scared,” said Freed. “People don’t currently have the energy or the mental range to deal with all of this.”