May 28, 2015

Proposed tax credit for stations installing call buttons so disabled motorists can refuel

Bill Dotzler

Bill Dotzler

Two Senate committees have approved a $500 tax credit for gas stations that install devices that let disabled motorists summon a station employee to pump their gas. The legislation would not require all Iowa gas stations to install “refueling assistance devices” on pumps, but any station upgrading its equipment would have to do so. Stations with just one employee would not have to comply.

Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, says having a specially equipped vehicle that allows a disabled person to drive isn’t enough if they can’t fill the vehicle with gas.

“They’re kind of isolated and it’s a real problem,” Dotzler says.

Senator Joe Bolkcom, Democrat from Iowa City, says this is a “reasonable approach” to a growing concern.

“There’s like 760,000 Baby Boomers in Iowa and I think increasingly people are going to need assistance if they’re going to be independent and able to drive their cars in old age,” Bolkcom says.

Senator Rita Hart, a Democrat from Wheatland, worked on similar legislation that passed the Senate last year, but stalled in the House. She says changes in the bill may make it “more palatable.”

“We’ve really tried to work with all the stakeholders and tried to come up with something that will work in the business world, but will truly make a difference to disabled people,” Hart says.

The bill passed the Senate Ways and Means tax-writing Committee today on a 12-2 vote. Senator Michael Breitbach, a Republican from Strawberry Point who voted against the bill, says convenience stores with two employees will find it difficult to comply.

“You’d have to take one person out of the kitchen if they’re preparing food, deep fat fryer going, they’d have to leave that station to go run the cash register and the other person would have to go outside,” he says.

Senator Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig, was the other “no” vote in committee.

“When you start this with gas stations, are we also going to have clothing stores bringing product out and receiving payment? Are we going to have Walmart getting calls from handicapped spots in the parking lot?” Schultz says. “This bill wouldn’t require that, but this bill opens up the door to something that I think is up to the business owner to attract business or provide additional services and, in fact, in our small towns I see people doing this already.”

The bill passed the Senate Agriculture Committee last week by a unanimous vote. It is now eligible for debate in the full Senate.

Governor & Mrs. Branstad paid $2,675 in state income taxes for 2014

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad and his wife made over $191,000 last year, but paid a little less than $2,700 in state taxes. The governor’s chief of staff and the CPA who has been doing the Branstad’s taxes for the past 10 years met with reporters to discuss the couple’s tax returns late this morning.

Branstad and his wife, Chris, were able to significantly reduce their state income tax liability to making nearly $29,000 worth of donations to charities, plus they plugged about $18,000 into college savings accounts for their six grandchildren.

The Branstads own 13 post office buildings around the state and collected over $81,000 in rent, but through a combination a losses on those and other investments that rental income was basically erased from the bottom line.

Branstad collected a salary of nearly $128,000 as governor last year, along with a state pension of nearly $55,000. His wife, who is no longer working, collected Social Security.

The couple’s nearly $29,000 in donations to charities amounted to about 15 percent of their total income last year. Branstad’s chief of staff notes that’s five times higher than the average charitable giving from people in the Branstad’s income group. The couple gave to nine different Catholic churches, schools and charities and made donations to non-profit groups like the Terrace Hill Foundation which maintains the governor’s mansion. The Branstads did not donate to Drake or the University of Iowa where the governor earned his degrees, but the couple did donate to Des Moines University. Branstad served as president of the osteopathic college before returning as governor in 2011.

The Branstad’s paid $20,000 in federal taxes for 2014. Their CPA says the Branstad’s federal income tax rate was 10.62 percent.

The couple paid $2,465 to cover a portion of the premiums on their health insurance policies.

Reporters were allowed to view copies of the couple’s 62-page tax return for about half an hour today.

The post office buildings owned by the Branstads are located in the following towns: North English, Dunlap, Olin, Exira, Packwood, Manly, Guttenberg, Le Claire, Seymour, Sibley, Lake Park, Lake Mills and Lohrville.

Thousands expected to ask for extension to file federal taxes

IRS LogoFederal tax returns are due by midnight tonight and officials with the Internal Revenue Service expect more than 57,000 Iowans will be requesting an extension this year.

IRS spokesman Bill Brunson says you can go the antiquated route, using a paper form that needs to be postmarked before midnight, or speed up the process with a few clicks on the agency’s website.

Brunson says, “All you need to do is go to IRS.gov and click on the Free File icon where you can choose to request an extension automatically for an additional six months online at no charge.” You have until midnight to make the request, which will push your federal tax deadline back to October 15th. While it used to be a circus-like atmosphere on April 15th, with procrastinators rushing to the post office late at night, most of those offices now keep regular business hours on tax deadline day.

Brunson notes e-filing has all but eliminated that urgency and Iowa is one of the nation’s e-filing leaders.”The Internal Revenue Service expects more than 1.4-million returns for this reporting period and of that 1.4 million, 1.3-million are expected to be electronically filed,” Brunson says. “That’s a rate of 93 percent of Iowans who will choose to electronically file their tax return.”

E-filers also have until midnight to complete the tax task, which Brunson says is more accurate, since the program won’t let you make a math error. He touts another benefit.

“Your electronic return is secure in the sense that, if you have a refund coming, you can choose to have it directly deposited in your savings or checking account, and that item won’t get lost or stolen like an old-fashioned paper check,” Brunson says. “You can expect to get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service in 21 days or less.” E-filing saves the IRS a bundle. Processing a paper return costs $3.54 on average, while an e-filed return costs more like 18 cents.

 

Senate committee led by Grassley holding hearing on IRS asset seizures

Senator Chuck Grassley

Senator Chuck Grassley

With the deadline to file our federal tax returns approaching tomorrow, it’s timely Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is working to author legislation which aims to scale back the power of the IRS and other federal agencies to seize property and assets through forfeiture law.

“The practice and the abuse of this law has been well-documented in many news reports,” Grassley says. “As we develop this legislation, it’s important to hear from different sides of the issue.”

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley plans to hold a hearing on Wednesday that will analyze the forfeiture program, which he refers to as a “dragnet.” Grassley says, “I’m holding a hearing to help shed light on how asset seizures work, the benefits of the program and the flip-side of how it can be abused.” The witness list includes victims of forfeiture cases, law enforcement officials and lawyers involved in the issue.

Grassley, a Republican, says the forfeiture law includes, in his words, “perverse incentives” for law enforcement. “There are appropriate instances for law enforcement use of asset forfeiture to seize property if it’s associated with criminal activity,” Grassley says. “We’ll look at that aspect and the inadequate procedural safeguards in the process for property owners to contest these seizures.” Grassley says he wants to explore ways to reform current laws that will prevent abuse and protect citizens and small business owners.

 

Bill seeks to boost honey bee buying in Iowa

A honeybee on red clover.

A honeybee on red clover.

Bee keepers would get a tax break for buying more honey bees if a bill that cleared a committee in the Iowa Tuesday becomes law.

The population of bees has dropped significantly across the country, sparking concerns about the pollination of crops. Just one member of the House Ways and Means Committee voted against the bill to exempt the sale of honey bees from the state sales tax.

“First off, let me tell you I’m not a honeybee hater,” said Representative Jerry Kearns, a Democrat from Keokuk.

According to Kearns, the state would be better off investing money in research to find out why bees are dying rather than offering a tax break.

“It seems to me taking the sales tax off the sales of honey bees is not going to help (the bees) at all,” Kearns said. “It might help bring a few more in if somebody thinks $6 on $100 is going to help.”

Iowa beekeepers manage about 30,000 colonies of honeybees. Experts estimate at least one-quarter of the food consumed in the U.S. can be traced back to a plant that was pollinated by a bee. Bees are dying at an alarming rate across the country. Some cite pesticides as the culprit while others point to mites that attack bee colonies. According to the latest data from the USDA, nearly a quarter of the honey bees in managed colonies died last winter. Data is not yet available for this winter.

Senator Grassley working on legislation to curb federal asset seizures

Senator Chuck Grassley

Senator Chuck Grassley

A northwest Iowa restaurant owner gained national attention last year after the Internal Revenue Service seized more than $30,000 from her account, forcing the eatery to close — but the IRS later dropped its case.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says there are many similar situations popping up lately that involve the U.S. Justice Department or the IRS wielding far too much power. “There can be good reason to seize property in a criminal investigation, but the law ought to be about protecting innocent people,” Grassley says. “Too often, we’ve seen just the opposite with civil asset forfeiture laws. It’s become a big business for the federal government.”

The Justice Department is taking steps to put more restrictions on how assets can be seized, but Grassley, a Republican, says there are still too many loopholes and opportunities for abuse. “I’m working on bipartisan legislation that will protect innocent people from being caught up in any sort of a dragnet,” Grassley says. “The bill I’m working on would enhance procedural protections for individuals if property is seized.”

According to Grassley, the bill would also reduce incentives for law enforcement to seize civil assets in these cases. Carol Hinders had run Mrs. Lady’s Mexican Food in Spirit Lake for 38 years, accepting only cash. Her frequent cash deposits caught the eye of the IRS and the whole ordeal began. While she did eventually get back the $33,000 the IRS had seized, she sold the restaurant and retired.

 

Author Steve Berry to visit Iowa, discuss book about federal taxes

The-Patriot-ThreatWith the deadline to file our federal tax returns in less than two weeks, it’s no coincidence best-selling author Steve Berry is releasing his latest book now, as it addresses arguments the income tax may not be legal.

Berry will be in Iowa next week to promote his novel, “The Patriot Threat,” and he says it is not a manifesto to quit paying your taxes, but it brings up some startling facts from U.S. history.

“The book deals with the 16th Amendment to the Constitution and what may have happened in 1913 when the amendment was ratified,” Berry says. “There’s some interesting legal issues that arose during that time, ones that call into question the entire amendment, so I sent my recurring character, my hero Cotton Malone, to deal with this constitutional question.”

Berry writes fictional thrillers and does in-depth research to weave in bits of nonfictional history. For this book, he says he had as many as 400 sources and made trips to Washington D.C., Italy and Croatia. The research led him to some surprising revelations.

“There was a gentleman about 20 years ago who went to every state in the union that supposedly ratified the 16th Amendment and studied their ratification process,” Berry says. “He discovered problems in a lot of the states and in about 12 to 15 of the states, they may very well not have ratified the amendment. His research is not out in left field. There’s a lot of it that makes good sense.”

Steve Berry

Steve Berry

Berry’s first book, “The Amber Room,” was rejected by publishers 85 times. The 86th attempt landed him his first national best-seller and he’s had multiple best-sellers in the years since.

Berry and his wife will be at the Des Moines Public Library next week to pitch the newest book in a benefit for historic preservation. “I’ll be talking about the book and taking questions and signing books,” Berry says. “That’ll happen at 7 o’clock on the 10th, and then on the 11th, we’re doing the History Matters Writers Workshop. Elizabeth and I are going to teach the craft of writing for four hours. You’ll buy your way in with a contribution and all of that money is going to a historic preservation project that we’re there to sponsor.”

The workshops, Berry says, have raised almost one-million dollars for historic preservation and other causes. Last year, Berry hosted a workshop in Davenport to benefit the city’s Art Legacy League. At a similar event in Des Moines in 2012, Berry donated all proceeds to a state landmark, Terrace Hill, the Iowa Governor’s Mansion. He also featured the historic Salisbury House in Des Moines in his last novel, “The Lincoln Myth.”

Berry’s books have been translated into 40 languages with more than 18 million printed copies in 51 countries. Learn more at www.steveberry.org.