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July 2011

The U.S. unemployment rate inched up over the last month, going from 9.1 percent to 9.2 percent. Things are even worse at the state and local level. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on state-by-state employment in June reveals that total state and local government jobs fell in 39 states over the past year. Overall state-local government employment is now 2 percent below its level at the start of the recession, while private employment is down 5.8 percent over the same period. The hardest hit state is New Jersey, according to analyses by the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University... Read more →

Have you taken a summer vacation? If you haven't made plans yet, you might want to consider Florida. You're already familiar with the beaches, theme parks and great birding spots. But the Sunshine State also has good tax news for travelers. Three of Florida's major cities are the most tax friendly to tourists, according to the Global Business Travel Association Foundation's 2011 study of car rental, hotel and meal taxes in the top 50 U.S. travel destinations. Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and my old South Florida stomping grounds of West Palm Beach took the top three spots as cities that... Read more →

Wisconsin city overcharges elderly widow's property taxes for 24 years

Here's another reason to pay close attention to your property tax bill. Angie France's modest Racine, Wisc., home was overvalued by city tax assessors, resulting in her getting -- and paying -- too high of a property tax bill for 24 years. The 84-year-old widow discovered the incorrect assessment when, following her husband's death, she went ot the city to inquire about possible ways she could lower her tax obligation given her new single situation. That's when city officials discovered that back in 1987 the original property inspector and tax assessor assumed that a pair of upper windows in her... Read more →

Here's a good reason to pay attention to where your property taxes go. Alabama's Constitution, ratified in 1901, allows for a state property tax to help fund schools, the government's operating budget and pensions for Confederate veterans and widows. The last beneficiary of Alabama's Confederate pension has long been dead. The tax, however, is still being collected. But now the money is going to pay for Confederate Memorial Park. The park is on the 102 acres that once was home to the Alabama Confederate Soldiers' Home, which closed its doors 72 years ago. Also on the property are two cemeteries... Read more →

Economists always point out that jobs are a lagging indicator. Essentially, that means that employers tend to wait until they are convinced that the economy has recovered before they start hiring. Unfortunately for folks out of work, it looks like it could be a while before companies are confident enough to add to their payrolls. While being out of a job is bad enough, unemployed folks also need to be aware of possible tax implications. Yes, it's true. Taxes don't stop even when your paychecks do. So that's why today's Weekly Tax Tip focuses on the tax considerations of the... Read more →

After an almost three-week shutdown, the state of Minnesota is getting back on track. Thanks to some fiscal maneuvering, the Republican legislature agreed on a two-year, $35.7 budget in the early morning hours of today. Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, signed the bill into law a few hours later. Now come the next difficult, and slow, steps. Rest stops and parks must be cleaned before they can reopen. Construction equipment must be returned to work sites. State workers will have to sort through backlogged hunting and fishing license applications. But soon, things will be back, including the state lottery. And... Read more →

"It's not going to get easier," President Obama said during his July 10 press conference about the country's debt trouble. "It's going to get harder. So we might as well do it now: pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas." And with that last phrase, food politics blew up again. The prez's political adversaries jumped on him not only for his proposals, but for what they viewed as simplistic references to major policy issues. The pea people, however, saw the mention of their product as an opportunity. "We take President Obama's comment on the need to 'eat our peas' as... Read more →

The Gang of Six has released details on its budget proposal. OK, details is a little strong. Really it's a five-page talking points memo that will rely on a two-pronged attack. First, right up top, the proposal entitled (in all caps) "AN AGGRESSIVE PLAN THAT INVOLVES THE WHOLE CONGRESS" calls for a $500 billion "down payment" on the the federal deficit. That money would come in part by imposing statutory discretionary spending caps through 2015 and implementing numerous budget process reforms. That's nice and vague. Then we have part two, which calls for an additional $3.2 trillion in deficit reduction.... Read more →

'Back in Black' budget plan: Is a debt ceiling solution near?

Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has managed to tick off just about everybody in D.C. at some point, has returned to the Gang of Six budget negotiations. More importantly, it looks like the group, which Coburn left in May because he said it wasn't making substantial fiscal progress, might be on the verge of a workable deal. While he was on his brief working group sabbatical, Coburn came up with his own budget proposal, which he's dubbed Back in Black, using the accounting reference of getting the U.S. back on the positive side of the ledger. The Sooner State... Read more →

Washington, D.C., has been going about this whole federal budget dealio all wrong. What America needs is a superhero to solve our financial crisis. And you, my friend, can be that hero. There's no need to be bitten by a radioactive spider, freaked out by a bat colony or come from another planet. You just need to check out Marketplace. The American Public Media radio program that keeps an eye on the markets and finances has created the free online game Budget Hero. Click on the image (or here) to become a Budget Hero. The game relies primarily on the... Read more →

I admit it. I'm a crime nut. My first post-college job was police beat reporter for a daily newspaper. I loved covering the mayhem and palling around with the cops. Today, I fill that void by being addicted to TV crime shows (no so-called reality, thank you; good scripted ones, like Breaking Bad and Justified) and movies (ranging from anything film noir with gangsters and/or private detectives -- Bogie! -- to the stylish Heat to the melodramatic Shawshank Redemption). So it's no surprise that on the work front, I check in periodically on tax crimes. The latest example is word... Read more →

In case you've been under the proverbial rock, global media mogul Rupert Murdoch's empire is continuing to crumble. While most of us weren't the targets of News Corp phone hacking, all this attention has raised everyone's general level of concern about personal privacy. That definitely was on my mind this morning when I logged onto my online banking account. Things started normally. I signed in, checked my account, looked at some electronic payments scheduled for next week and then tried to switch to another linked account. Suddenly I was asked to sign in again and then was thrown into a... Read more →

Tax breaks. We all want them. But sometimes things don't quite work out as planned. That tax discconect was a recurring theme in my posts last week at my other tax blog. Some taxpayers who this year started paying back the original first-time homebuyer credit -- that's the $7,500 one for the 2008 tax year -- have found the tax break has turned into even more trouble. They've been waiting, some for months, for refunds. The IRS is having difficulty processing this tax provision. And the reasons for such problems and subsequent refund delays are not satisfying affected filers. They've... Read more →

Film tax credits follow the box office:
Both are down

Hollywood is celebrating this weekend. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final installment of the boy wizard series, is already breaking box office records. But that might be the last good news for the U.S. film industry for a while. Fans start queuing in Trafalgar Square for the world premiere of "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2", in London July 5, 2011. The film will premiere on July 7. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor (BRITAIN - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) We're well into the summer movie season, heading into the last half of the year, and the total movie ticket... Read more →

When last we left Christian Lopez, he was basking in the glow of being a good sport and facing an unexpected tax bill. Lopez, as you might recall, ended up with the home run ball that marked the 3,000th major league baseball hit by Derek Jeter. Rather than hold onto the horsehide orb and sell it for a possible small fortune, Lopez gave the ball back to the Yankees captain. In return, Lopez got lots of valuable goodies -- and a potential five-figure tax bill -- from the baseball team. But Lopez's goodwill has been contagious. Since the momentous MLB... Read more →

Hit with a tax lien? Talk with the IRS about it in person on Saturday, July 16

When people run into rough financial patches, one of the bills that often gets shuffled to the bottom of the stack is the one from the tax collector. That's not a good idea, since the Internal Revenue Service has the authority to place a lien against taxpayers who owe. And Uncle Sam isn't shy about making use of this tax collection tool. But for the last few years, the IRS also has been trying to show a little compassion. As folks have had money trouble during this persistent economic downturn, the agency has implemented procedures to deal with tax liens... Read more →

When debt is mentioned, most of us right now think of how deep a hole the United States is in, thanks to the continuing coverage (this blog included) of the the country's deficit and the debt ceiling debate. But individuals and businesses also carry a lot of debt. And this week, in a rare joint hearing, Congress' two tax-writing committees took a look at whether the tax code is a major enabler of major debt. Duh! OK, it's a bit more complicated that my flip dismissal indicates, but even a cursory look at our tax systems shows that it rewards... Read more →

Tracking down your tax refund

It's July. You filed your taxes on time. So just where the heck is your tax refund? Some specific tax credits could be causing the hold-up. Many first-time homebuyers who this filing season starting paying back the original $7,500 faux credit have found their 1040s and expected refunds are in processing purgatory. Some adoptive parents also are seeing some delays in their refunds as the IRS is carefully looking at those returns before sending out money. In these cases, those folks unfortunately simply have to wait. But if you're basically just waiting for a regular old refund, then there are... Read more →

Talking, or not, about the debt ceiling

So some members of Congress <> want to abdicate their roles in dealing with the debt ceiling issue. That's not really surprising. During my many years of Congress watching, I've seen a lot of crazy things, including plenty of lazy lawmakers. And at some points in our careers, we've all wanted to just throw up our hands and walk away. But really, guys (and this time it is the men in ostensible charge who are futzing around, so there's no gender chauvinism on my part). You were elected to help run this country. If you really don't... Read more →

Retiring later, taxing more earnings and picking the perfect domestic tax haven

Retirement is a hot topic right now. Those of us near a certain age are wondering what changes might be in the offing regarding Social Security now that the prez has indicated he's willing to include the government retirement program in budget/debt ceiling talks. Younger people have for many years been skeptical of the program. Many believe that it's impossible to make enough changes to guarantee them any Social Security benefits when they're ready to retire. Those concerns were part of a recent hearing by the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. The July 8 session examined Social... Read more →