Most consumers likely to get help

The Baltimore Sun

For the most part, Americans earning less than $200,000 a year figure to get a tax break once Congress puts the finishing touches on the stimulus package.

Many workers would get a little more in their paychecks. Homebuyers are likely to get a credit worth thousands of dollars. Laid-off workers would get help with their health insurance. And parents could be in line for a bigger refund.

Having passed versions of the measure in both the House and Senate, lawmakers now must work out the differences and come up with a compromise bill to send to President Barack Obama. But each version has similarities when it comes to tax relief for most Americans.

"Both bills are heavily tilted to individual tax breaks," said Ray Beeman, a tax partner with Venable LLP in Washington.

Looking at areas where there is agreement, here are some tax breaks you will probably see in the final legislation:

Making Work Pay credit: The bulk of the individual tax cuts - more than $139 billion worth - goes to this credit that Obama campaigned on.

The credit, worth up to $500 per worker, essentially would offset some of the Social Security payroll taxes that Americans pay this year and next. Employers would still have to kick in their share.

Under the House version, you could choose to receive the credit through your paycheck or wait to claim it on your tax return, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst with CCH Inc., an Illinois provider of tax information.

The House plan is more generous. It would more gradually phase out the credit, starting once adjusted gross income exceeded $75,000 for singles or $150,000 for married joint filers. The Senate would start phasing it out after income topped $70,000 for individuals and $140,000 for joint filers.

Homebuyer credit: Both chambers are trying to spur home sales with a tax credit worth thousands of dollars for homebuyers.

The House credit is worth up to $7,500 for first-time homebuyers who purchase during the first six months of this year.

The Senate credit is worth up to $15,000 for a principal residence purchased within a year of the bill's passage. It is not limited to first-time buyers.

Both bills require that the credit be repaid if the house is sold within a certain number of years.

Expanded child credit: Parents, within certain income limits, now receive a $1,000 credit for each young child. If parents owe little or no taxes, they can receive a portion of the credit as a tax refund.

Under the stimulus proposals, Congress would increase the refundable portion for two years. But parents would get more back under the House version.

Energy savings: The maximum tax credit for making energy-related home improvements, such as adding insulation, would be tripled to $1,500 for this year and next.

Education breaks: The Hope Scholarship tax credit for tuition and fees would be expanded several ways this year and next. The maximum credit would be raised from $1,800 to $2,500. It could be claimed during any academic year, instead of just the first two. The credit would be widened to cover textbook expenses.

The income limits to qualify for a full or partial credit would be raised to $90,000 for singles and $180,000 for joint filers. And for the first time, the credit would be partly refundable.

Financially needy students also would get more money through Pell Grants. The House wants to raise the top Pell Grant by $500, to $5,350 for the 2009-2010 academic year, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, an online provider of financial aid information. The Senate's proposed increase is less, but it is spread over two academic years.

The House would permanently raise the annual limit for the unsubsidized Stafford student loans by $2,000, Kantrowitz said. The Senate bill does not mention these popular federal loans, but Kantrowitz expects that the Senate will go along because this would save students and the government money.

Help for laid-off workers: Recently laid-off workers, or those about to be, could get assistance for a year with insurance premiums under COBRA, the federal law that generally allows former employees to remain under their old employer's health plan as long as they pay the full price of coverage.

Laid-off workers would pay 35 percent or 50 percent of the premiums, depending on the version adopted. The government would subsidize the rest through a tax credit or payment to employers. The Senate also wants to exclude from taxes the first $2,400 of unemployment benefits this year. The House has not proposed anything similar, but might go along with this, some experts say.

Auto purchase deductions: The Senate included Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's proposal allowing buyers of new cars and light trucks to deduct the sales tax and the interest on loan payments from their federal returns.

The tax breaks would start phasing out once a buyer's adjusted gross income exceeded $125,000 for singles and $250,000 for joint filers. It would apply to vehicles with a price tag of up to $49,500 and acquired late last year or in 2009.

This could be iffy. To keep the cost of the final legislation down, these deductions might be dropped, said Venable's Beeman. And taxpayers already have the option to deduct sales tax, he noted.

Alternative Minimum Tax: The Senate proposes a one-year, $70 billion fix to this tax to prevent it from hitting middle-income families. If the House does not agree, Congress probably will tackle it later this year along with other tax breaks that are expiring.

"This will be a very active year," Beeman said.

THE STIMULUS PLAN

Despite some differences in the economic stimulus bills approved by the House and Senate, here are tax breaks that are likely to make the final cut:

ISSUE: Making Work Pay credit

HOUSEVERSION : The $500 per worker credit would start phasing out once adjusted gross income exceeded $75,000 for singles, $150,000 for joint filers

SENATE VERSION : Credit would begin phasing out once income topped $70,000 for singles, $140,000 for joint filers

ISSUE : Homebuyer credit

HOUSE VERSION : Credit worth up to $7,500 for first-time homebuyers

SENATE VERSION : Credit worth up to $15,000 for principal residences purchased within a year

ISSUE : Higher education

HOUSE VERSION : Raises maximum Pell Grant by $500, to $5,350, for 2009-2010 academic year

SENATE VERSION : Raises maximum Pell Grant by $281 the first year and $400 the next

ISSUE : Help for laid-off workers

HOUSE VERSION : Subsidizes laid-off workers' COBRA insurance premiums by 65 percent

SENATE VERSION Subsidizes laid-off workers' COBRA insurance premiums by 50 percent

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