NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- With a new mandate looming that will require business owners to file millions more tax forms, the Internal Revenue Service has begun the daunting process of figuring out how to turn the law's sweeping demands into actual rules for taxpayers.
The new regulations, which kick in at the start of 2012, require any taxpayer with business income to issue 1099 forms to all vendors from whom they purchased more than $600 of goods and services that year. That promises to launch a fusillade of new paperwork: An estimated 40 million taxpayers will be subject to the requirement, including 26 million who run sole proprietorships, according to a report released this week by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson.
Olson's office, which operates independently within the IRS, flagged the new reporting requirements as one of its priority issues for the next year. Like many who have delved into the details of the new rules, Olson is concerned about their far-reaching scope and potential unintended consequences.
"The new reporting burden, particularly as it falls on small businesses, may turn out to be disproportionate as compared with any resulting improvement in tax compliance," the Taxpayer Advocate Service wrote in a report released this week.
The new rules are aimed at reducing the "tax gap" between what individuals and businesses owe and what they actually pay. The federal government misses out on estimated $300 billion each year from tax underpayment. The expanded reporting requirements, which Congress slipped into the landmark health care reform bill passed in March, are an attempt to create a paper trail of 1099s exposing business-to-business payments that might otherwise stay off the radar.
But the cost of that paper trail could swamp the small companies, sole proprietors freelancers forced to generate it. Pennsylvania business networking organization SMC Business Councils surveyed its members and found that they currently average 10 filings a year of 1099 forms. The new rules would push that average to more than 200 filings per year for a typical small business, the industry group estimates.
The IRS will have broad leeway to interpret the rules -- and it's already showing signs that it will look for ways to staunch the paperwork flood.
In a late May speech before the two payroll industry trade group, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman announced a major exception to the new rules: The IRS plans to exempt transactions made through credit and debit cards. A separate reporting requirement kicks in next year that will cover card transactions and help the IRS spot unreported payments made through those channels, "so there is no need for businesses to report them as well," Shulman said. "Whenever a business uses a credit or debit card, there will be no new burden under the new law."
How much of a sigh of relief you should breathe depends on what kind of purchases your business makes. Some big-ticket consumer items that are typically paid by card -- airline tickets or hotel stays, for example -- will be 1099-free. But SMC Business Councils President Tom Henschke, a vocal critic of the new law, estimates that exempting credit-card transactions would affect less than 10% of his members' reporting requirements.
"Most of the small businesses out there that do small business [purchasing] don't do it by credit card," he said. "One of the reasons is the transaction cost is very high -- 2% to 3%."
Henschke thinks the main beneficiaries of the exemption are likely to be credit-card companies, which will gain an added hook to get small businesses to pay their fees. Nolan Newman, a Seattle CPA who specializes in small-business needs, says it's certainly possible that card usage will rise as a result: "If I'm a small business and I use my credit card moderately, would I try to increase my volume with which I pay vendors with it? Maybe."
Henschke foresees another unintended consequence of the new reporting provisions: that in order to cut down on tax forms to be filed, businesses will trim the number of vendors they do business with. "I've actually heard businesses talking about consolidating their purchases, going from 150, 200 vendors, down to less than 100," he said. "That will most certainly lead to some small businesses being swept under the door."
The taxpayer advocate's office shares that concern. "Many large vendors already have computer systems that can track purchases by customer. They are likely to advertise that they will track each customer's total purchases and send them a report at the end of the year that business customers can use to comply with the Form 1099 filing requirement," the office wrote in its report. "Small businesses that lack the capacity to track customer purchases may lose customers, leaving the economy with more large national vendors and less local competition."
That was just one of seven major pitfalls the Taxpayer Advocate Service foresees in the new rules. It also questions whether they will actually do much to close the tax gap. Because of product returns and other complications, the payments documented by the 1099 trail won't match up cleanly against the revenue businesses report. "The IRS will face challenges making productive use of this new volume of information reports," Olson's office concluded.
That could help explain one otherwise puzzling aspect of the new tax law, which is that despite the sweeping reporting requirements, the Joint Committee on Taxation -- a nonpartisan Congressional committee that analyzes pending tax legislation -- estimated that it would bring in only about $2 billion a year in new tax revenue. Committee staffers wouldn't comment on the record.
"Judging from the estimate that the committee has made, they didn't think it was that far-reaching," said Eric Toder of the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. "Does it close a lot of the tax gap? No."
The IRS did not return repeated calls and e-mails asking for clarification on its timeline for drafting the new regulations.
In his talk to accountants in May, Shulman put off questions about the expanded 1099 reporting, saying that even the idea of exempting credit-card transactions was just "an example of where we are headed, not as a complete implementation plan." The agency is currently seeking public comment on how it should implement the new rules.
The IRS has some leeway in implementing the new law -- but only some. "The regulations are supposed to implement the intent of Congress; they're not supposed to be independent policy-making," Toder said. "But obviously, there's some discretion there."
Shulman himself hinted that it may take new legislation -- not just IRS regs -- to fix what Congress has wrought. "We won't hesitate to consider alternate approaches," he said in his speech, "including working with Congress to address any potential implementation issues that may arise during this process."
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