Benefit Plans Not Necessarily Safe From Tax Reform

It's too soon for employers to breathe easy, even though the GOP plan doesn't specify employee benefit targets.

Although there are no fixed targets among employee benefits specified in the proposed Republican tax reform plan, it’s too soon for employers or employees to breathe easy.

That’s according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management, which points out that it’s too early in the process to know which benefits might draw fire if the GOP feels the need to offset tax cuts elsewhere. But employers, naturally, are hoping that the tide flows the other way, with better tax treatment or even expansion of some benefits.

Currently, the report says, salary-deducted payments for group health plan premiums are excluded from an employee’s gross income. Employers, for their part, can write off premiums they pay as a business expense. The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that in 2018, these exclusions and deductions will lower tax revenues by $235.8 billion. Employers, of course, hope this provision remains untouched, although it could provide a handy target.

One change employers are hoping for is the elimination of the “Cadillac tax” from the Affordable Care Act, which is set to start in 2020. The 40% excise tax on employer-sponsored health coverage above certain benefit thresholds ($10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage) will hit a lot of unhappy employers should it remain in effect.

There is some concern that even if the Cadillac tax is repealed, it could be replaced by a cap on the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored coverage, an idea that’s been bruited about in the past. Katy Spangler, senior vice president for health policy at the American Benefits Council in Washington, D.C., is quoted in the report saying, “Instead of eroding employer coverage [with a cap], we should strengthen it by expanding health savings accounts and supporting efforts to make preventive care more affordable.”

When it comes to 401(k)s and similar plans, tax-deductible employer contributions and tax-deferred employee contributions could be eliminated, even though once contributions are withdrawn during retirement, they’re taxed. But since Roth contributions are taxed on the way into the account, not on the way out, there’s some talk of pushing toward Roth plans by eliminating or cutting the tax advantages of 401(k)s. That would result in an immediate influx of tax dollars, which could offset cuts in the corporate and individual tax rates.

Such a move could be a killer to employee savings habits, which would only exacerbate the retirement crisis.

Small business plans could come in for some tweaking, too; the report says the tax reform framework includes a proposal to reduce the tax rate on small business “pass-through” income to 25 %. And according to Craig Hoffman, general counsel for the American Retirement Association, which represents retirement plan sponsors and advisors, that could inadvertently lower the incentive for small businesses to provide employee retirement plans.

For student loan and tuition assistance, the Republican framework has a section titled “Work, Education and Retirement,” that includes the statement tjat congressional committees “are encouraged to simplify these benefits to improve their efficiency and effectiveness.”

And while that’s not very specific, “That wording makes us nervous,” Kathleen Coulombe, senior advisor for government relations at SHRM, says in the report. She adds that there are concerns that simplification could negatively affect the tax exclusion not just for employer-sponsored retirement plans but for tuition assistance and other workplace benefits as well.

The report points out that Section 127 of the tax code currently allows an employee to exclude from taxable income up to $5,250 per year in employer-provided educational assistance. That amount has never been raised and is not indexed to inflation. “Many employers and stakeholders feel that this amount should be increased,” Coulombe says in the report.

Only time will tell.

 

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