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Frist, forms and filing follies

The more things change, the more they stay the same, at least on Capitol Hill.

Congress is back and once again is having problems approving some tax breaks that expired last Dec. 31. I've ranted talked about this legislative logjam a gazillion times, so I won't bore my regular readers. (If you're new and want some background, you can check here and here and here and here and ... told ya it was a pet tax peeve.)

True, it's still the same Congress, not the new group that was elected last month and which will take over in January. But I was hoping that when lawmakers reconvened, politics would be an afterthought and a new attitude would take hold as they finished up some necessary business that fell prey to the midterm elections.

What was I thinking?!

No, sadly, it's back to situation normal, all fouled up in D.C. Millions of constituents (who have a tad less clout now that elections are once again two years away), are still waiting for the final word on three popular but now almost a year dead tax breaks: the itemized deduction for state sales taxes paid, along with the write-offs that even standard deduction filers can claim for tuition and fees and, if they're educators, classroom supplies they personally purchased. For you business types, there's a research and development tax break likely to be thrown in there, too.

Naturally, being good Americans, we want our tax breaks back. I know down here in no income but sky-high sales tax Texas, I'd like to have that deduction option again on my 2006 (and future) returns. But I'd also just like some resolution

If Congress decides it can't afford to cut me and others a sales-tax break, then so be it. Just tell me so I'll know what to expect and, with a few weeks left in December, maybe make some moves to make up for that lost deduction.

Legislative starts and stops: Things started out on a good note. Lawmakers Monday got together and cobbled together a plan to extend all these tax breaks for two years. Of course, one of those years is the one about to be past, meaning they would expire again at the end of 2007. Such is the way of federal legislation. We'll deal with it.

But then, the process stalled. What's the hold up this time? The better question is who's the hold up this time? One guess. It starts with an F. (Don't go there, although I admit I tend to when I'm contemplating this situation away from the blog keyboard.)

Yep. Senator Doctor Bill Frist is at it again.

Frist_flag_day_2 Same old, same old: Just after November's election, I wondered if the outgoing Republican Senate Majority Leader would try yet again to force estate repeal through the Congress by taking the long-delayed tax deduction extenders hostage. Thankfully, the answer to that question was "no."

But it appears that the doctor/senator from Tennessee just can't help himself. With no estate tax to focus on, other items have caught his fancy. Reports out of Washington say this time it's a handful of provisions dealing with Medicare and Medicaid payments that have tied up lawmakers.

Seems that Frist wants to block the scheduled 5-percent cut in Medicare fees paid to physicians. And he wants the fee-cut language to be voted on along with the expired tax breaks.

OK, he's not alone. Other lawmakers also want to use the dead deductions to stop a proposed 50-percent cut from Medicaid provider taxes and to preserve the current 6-percent tax ceiling for state taxes on healthcare providers.

But Frist, erstwhile wannabe GOP presidential candidate, gets special mention because he's been such a pain in this regard for the last year. He's single-handedly tied up these measures in repeated and unsuccessful attempts to get his own personal pet projects enacted. He's not alone and he won't be the last, but such moves are the epitome of a bad politics and even worse lawmaking.

Further Frist fallout: It's not been a good swan song for Frist. Apparently he had a pseudo-Kramer reaction to a heckler at a Washington think tank event. No, no racially offensive words were used, but in the minds of some conservatives, a derisive political one was uttered: Socialist.

In responding to the heckler, Frist was caught on tape telling the man that "all Americans have a right to health care." Them's fightin' words in right wing circles, just the circles Frist was counting on to propel him to the White House. That run was called off after the think tank tape went public.

According to the Nashville Scene, Frist then told the conservative Center for American Health Policy Initiatives gathering, "In addition, I think that the U.S. should at long last follow the lead of every other Western democracy and provide care to all its citizens, regardless of their ability to pay, through a government-funded system," before being hustled from the stage by handlers.

Form and filing follies: Since Congress has screwed around deliberated so long, the IRS was forced to move ahead on its forms and sent them to the printers without including the various expired deductions.

The agency faced a Hobson's choice: Either presume that Congress would indeed follow through on its year-long promise to reinstate the tax breaks, and we all know how dangerous it is to take Congress at its word, or leave the items off the forms and deal with the filing issues when and if they came up.

The IRS made the right call. While I am convinced the tax breaks will be back in force any day now (fingers very tightly crossed), retroactive to Jan. 1, I repeat: We all know how dangerous it is to take Congress at its word.

So what does this delay and the IRS printing of possibly incorrect forms mean to you and me? One report has filers entering the deductions on lines for other items and using a special code to identify them. That's gonna work well, I'm sure. Can you say mass confusion? For everybody: filers, IRS, tax software companies.

And the potential filing errors ... Yikes! We make enough mistakes in years when we have lots of advance warning about tax law changes.

Yes, Congress is once again adding to tax filing season mayhem. The more things change, the more they stay the same, at least on Capitol Hill.


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