Main Street to Trump: These are the key tax reforms we need to keep the American dream alive

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As President Donald Trump and the GOP rush to push tax reform, small-business owners and advocates are speaking out on what taxing issues are crippling them and the reforms they would like to see. With the sector creating two-thirds of U.S. jobs, freeing up money to help them invest more in their business is critical, say many experts.

“Smaller businesses really are, in a lot of ways, the drivers of the economy,” says CPA Robert Bernstein, a partner in Grassi & Co., a New York City area accounting firm.

Taxes consistently emerge as the No. 1 issue for small business in the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey. In the recently released third-quarter edition, taxes once again topped the list of “critical issues,” ahead of health care and regulation. The survey, which had more than 2,200 respondents, was released in late September.

That same month, Trump proposed a variety of tax-reform measures, both for individuals and business. The reforms to individual tax rates would affect small-business owners, who are often taxed on their income at individual tax rates. The Senate last week approved a Republican-backed fiscal 2018 budget that will enable Republicans to pass tax legislation through the Senate with 50 votes or more.

“The vast majority of small-business owners pay taxes through their individual return,” says Dave Yeske, CFP, managing director of Yeske Buie, who works out of the firm’s San Francisco office. He is also the director of Golden Gate University’s financial planning program.

When it comes to individual taxes, the president has proposed reducing the number of tax brackets from seven to three, with tax rates of 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent. Current rates range from 10 percent to 39.6 percent.

More from the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey:
Confidence in Trump drops on Main St. even among conservatives
How Main Street can survive in the Amazon Age
Tax reform blind spot

On the business side, the corporate tax rate would be reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent, a move many say will make American companies more competitive with those around the world.
Trump is also proposing a 25 percent tax on sole proprietorships and partnerships — known as pass-through businesses — which would be lower than the individual tax rates many currently pay.

Simpler is better

But is Trump going far enough? Many in the business community say they welcome the ideas for simplification and tax cuts that have been proposed so far — but the big questions are whether they will take effect and, if so, when.

The percentage of business owners who expect changes in tax policy to have a positive effect on their business in the next 12 months declined from 42 percent to 31 percent quarter-over-quarter, according to the CNBC/SurveyMonkey survey. There was also an increase in small-business owners who said tax policy would have “no effect” from 33 percent to 40 percent; 27 percent predicted a “negative effect.”

One area where many await changes from Trump is in making it easier to file their tax returns. “Tax simplification would be a boon to small business owners—and a boon to everyone,” says Yeske.

At present, taxes are so complicated that a small business owner can easily spend two weeks of time every year on activities related to preparing their returns, notes Hall. “The number one asset small business owners have is their time,” says Hall. “Any tax proposal that simplifies compliance and simplifies returns is beneficial.”

But what many small business owners really want to see is a tax cut that goes beyond helping big business. “If you are going to do it for corporations, do it for the self-employed people as well,” says Hall.

Keith Hall, a CPA who is president and CEO of the National Association for the Self-Employed, dreams of day when taxes are simplified to the point that small business owners could take standard deductions for common expenses, like depreciation and meals and entertaining. That would save time over the meticulous tracking now required.

To keep things fair, he says, the expenses could be pegged to industry and region. For instance, there might be a standard amount of mileage that a real estate broker could take, but it if the broker lived in a part of Texas where a lot of on-the-job driving is required, that deduction might be greater than for a broker in Manhattan, N.Y., who drives less and relies on other ways to get around town.

“The IRS has a per diem rate schedule that says you can take a standard amount for travel meals,” says Hall. “There is already a precedent.”

Fueling business expansion

Currently, many small business owners find it is hard to grow their firms as much as they would like, because their tax bills leave little left over to reinvest. “Any business owners has a certain pot of money they can spend on expansion, hiring new people, whatever the case may be,” says Roger Harris, president and COO of Padgett Business Services, a professional tax payroll and compliance firm specializing in servicing small businesses. “If taxes creep into that pot of money, there’s less money available for those types of things.”

Rohit Arora, CEO of Biz2Credit, a matchmaker between business borrowers and lenders in New York City, finds that many small business owners spend inordinate amounts of time looking for ways to lower their tax burden.

“TAX SIMPLIFICATION WOULD BE A BOON TO SMALL-BUSINESS OWNERS — AND A BOON TO EVERYONE.”-David Yeske , CFP and managing director of Yeske Buie

“Instead of thinking about how do I reinvest the money into my business you are thinking about ‘How do I lower my tax bill?” he says.

To lower their tax bills, owners must generally find ways to reduce the profits they are showing on their tax returns—but when they are successful in doing so, he notes, it hurts their ability to get business loans that would help them expand.

Bob Shoyhet, CFO of Melillo Consulting, a 70-employee IT solutions firm in Somerset, N.J., says if taxes get cut, his company will invest the money freed up in growth. “The money you invest in the company by hiring people is going back into the economy,” he notes.

As many owners point out, employees hired for newly created jobs would ultimately pay taxes on their earnings. “To me it makes absolute sense to have a tax cut,” Shoyhet says. “You’re not hurting the government—you’re generating more money for it.”

One idea Trump has put forth—allowing businesses to accelerate depreciation on machinery and equipment purchases is also generating support. If businesses could write off such expenses in full in the year they were incurred, they would have better cash flow, explains tax attorney Anthony Parent at IRS Medic in New York City. “It’s going to have a huge effect,” he says.

Taxing issues

Some owners would like to see more tax breaks for business owners.

Cindy Collins, CEO and founder of Euphoric Herbals in Harrington, Delaware, says it has been easier to grow her business—which sells products such as teas, supplements and salves-because she gets a $15,000 tax benefit through the Domestic Production Activities Deduction, which is for businesses that manufacture in the U.S.

“Considering how you have to pay in taxes, that is a great incentive,” she says. “I can create jobs in my community that desperately needs them.” She currently employs three people part-time.
Collins would also like to see a tax break for businesses that don’t carry debt, like hers. “I know growth gobbles up cash,” says Collins, but she believes such a break would encourage a healthier mindset for business owners.

By all accounts, one thing that will benefit all business owners is certainty about what tax rules will apply. “They want to know what the rules are so they can plan accordingly,” says CPA Michael Greenwald, partner and corporate and business tax practice leader in accounting firm Friedman LLP in New York City.

The timing of any tax reform will be very important, says Kimberly Temple Schrant, managing director at Kansas Money Coach, a financial coach in Wichita, who was previously a managing director at Grant Thornton. “If they want to get it done before the end of the year it’s possible to make changes,” she says. “If they don’t pass it until the beginning of the year and retro it back there is nothing that can be done.”

— By Elaine Pofeldt, special to CNBC.com

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