Bush plan: The new retirement
Income limits would disappear, but so would up-front tax incentives. How would you make out?
February 3, 2003: 6:56 PM EST
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The Bush administration has proposed a series of changes to make tax-sheltered retirement and other savings plans far more attractive -- and accessible -- to individuals.

On the table are two new savings plans -- a so-called Lifetime Savings Account and a Retirement Savings Account -- that would be open to anyone regardless of their income. A third kind of plan, called an Employer Retirement Savings Account, would replace a slew of existing work-sponsored savings vehicles including 401(k), 457 and 403(b) plans.

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The Bush administration wants to overhaul the country's retirement programs. CNNfn's Valerie Morris takes a closer look.

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Individuals would be able to save up to $15,000 a year above and beyond any employer-sponsored plan. But reaction to the proposal has been mixed, with experts saying that the long-term tax savings could be a huge bonanza for those who take full advantage of the plans but warning that lower income workers, and employees who work for small businesses, may not fare as well.

There's also concern that some upper-income earners could be hurt, too. That's because many may no longer be able to reduce their taxable income through pre-tax savings and therefore lose the ability to qualify for other tax breaks -- from child tax credits to deductions for un-reimbursed business expenses.

That said, the proposal must still be approved by Congress and many said it's too early to tell if the package will sail through the approval process.

"Who knows with this White House. It's proven to be very, very effective on Capitol Hill," said Ed Ferrigno, vice president of Profit Sharing 401k Council of America.

Lifetime Savings Accounts

Under the Bush proposal, individuals could save as much as $7,500 per year in an LSA account. (Subsequent contributions would rise or be "indexed" to inflation in the future.) And while there would be no up-front tax deduction on contributions, earnings would grow tax-deferred and could be taken out tax-free. Moreover, funds could be taken out at any time and for any purpose. That makes them a potentially powerful savings incentive for those hoping to amass money for a variety of shorter-term goals, not just retirement.

Individuals who want to quickly fund their accounts can do so in part by rolling over several savings plans into an LSA, including money they've put into such vehicles as a Coverdell Education Savings Account and Archer Medical Savings Account, by Jan. 1, 2004.

Retirement Savings Accounts

The administration also seeks to simplify retirement savings by replacing the current menu of IRAs with a so-called RSA, which would have annual contribution limits of $7,500 per individual. (Again, contributions in future years would be indexed to inflation.)

Earnings in these accounts would grow tax-deferred and be tax-free if withdrawn after age 58. There would be no immediate tax-break for contributing to them.

Existing Roth IRAs, which already have the same tax treatment as the proposed RSAs, wouldn't be affected by the change even though RSAs would replace Roths.

The plan also phases out traditional and non-deductible IRAs, which would be rolled into an RSA, as well. Any IRA savings that are rolled into an RSA before Jan. 1, 2004 would be taxed over four years. For conversions on or after Jan. 1, 2004, the tax on earnings would be due the year of the rollover. After that year, individuals would no longer be able to contribute to an IRA.

Employer Retirement Savings Accounts

The new proposal also aims to streamline the myriad employer-sponsored retirement savings accounts currently available, including 401(k), 403(b), 457 and Simple IRAs by replacing them with a new Employer Retirement Savings Account (ERSA). The new accounts wouldn't replace non-governmental 457 plans used by non-profits.

Savings limits for ERSAs would match current 401(k) limits: Individuals could stash as much as $12,000 this year with that amount rising to $15,000 by 2006. (Workers over age 50 could contribute more, up to $14,000 this year and $20,000 by 2006.)

The proposal gives employers flexibility to dictate how accounts will be set up since they allow them to decide whether employees' contributions to these new retirement plans could be made with pre-tax money (as they are now with 401(k) plans) or with after- tax earnings, said Tara Bradshaw, a spokesperson at the Treasury Department.

The critics

As retirement plan advocates and Congressional leaders sift through the subtext of Bush's plan, the critics are out in full force. Here's what they're saying:

Low-income tiers lose out: Upper-income earners may be the only ones who can afford to fully fund all three plans to their upper limits -- after all, few have an extra $15,000 to stash away each year. What's more, lower-income individuals could be disproportionately affected by loss of the deductible IRA, said Evan Snapper, senior manager personal financial consulting at Ernst & Young. That's because they'd no longer have an up-front tax incentive to save.

Some deductions will get lost: Upper-income earners might get hurt, too, if they are no longer able to put away pre-tax money into Employer-Sponsored Accounts. Contributing pre-tax earnings helps lower taxpayers' adjusted gross incomes, and that in turn allows many individuals and married couples to qualify for tax breaks and programs they might not otherwise be eligible for.

For example, married couples filing a joint return can only claim a child tax credit if their income is $110,000 or $75,000 for individuals. Deductions for student loan interest isn't at all available to single filers with $65,000 or for joint filers with an AGI over $130,000. And the $3,000 deduction families get for money they spent on college costs isn't at all available to single filers with incomes over $51,000 or $102,000 for joint filers.

Moreover, certain itemized deductions also are only allowed if they exceed a certain percentage of one's AGI. (For example, un-reimbursed business costs must exceed 2 percent.) The higher one's AGI, the tougher it is for those deductions to be valuable, Snapper pointed out.

Too much access: Some critics worry that people will choose to save first in the flexible Lifetime Savings Account rather than the retirement accounts, which restrict access until age 58. Such flexibility could prove too tempting to would-be savers.

"From our perspective, all savings is good, and I'm loathe to criticize it until we see detailed plans," said James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council. "But the main question it raises is to what extent does this encourage or discourage long-term savings?"

Thanks for nothing: Another potential pitfall? Small business owners could find it's no longer worth the expense or trouble of establishing retirement savings accounts for themselves and their employees since they could now stash a great deal of money away on their own, said Ferrigno at Profit Sharing 401k Council.

"Will the lower paid employees be courted in the RSA and LSA world? Historically, they have not been because they have little accounts," said Ferrigno. "If that happens, that's not a good thing for the country."  Top of page

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