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Congress Lets Dozens Of Tax Breaks Expire

If you use up all your rum on New Year's Eve and buy a replacement bottle in 2014, your purchase is going to be a little less rewarding for Puerto Rico.

A rum tax rebate program that sent nearly $200 million to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in 2013 will expire at midnight on Dec. 31. It's just one among 55 tax breaks set to expire at the end of the year.

That vanishing act is an annual tradition — part of the way Congress likes to ring in the new year. Temporary tax breaks reach their end, kicking off a lobbying scramble to get them restored.

"It's very cynical of Congress to have this large group of tax credits and breaks routinely expire," says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

For the past decade, residents of the seven states that don't collect individual income taxes have been able to write off state sales tax payments on their federal forms. That deduction is now going away. Mortgage insurance premiums won't be deductible either.

As things stand, teachers who buy supplies and decorations for their classrooms aren't going to be able to write those purchases off on their federal taxes next year.

"We know that teachers and educators are constantly spending out of pocket to make up for funding deficiencies," says Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association. "From our perspective, we of course are alarmed that this tax provision would expire."

But, as Kusler points out, this isn't the first time Congress has reached Dec. 31 without extending certain breaks. With a broader deal on tax policy seemingly off the table for the time being, Kusler predicts there will be a push to restore the education write-off when Congress returns in January.

Individuals and industries that have benefited from the expiring provisions — electric vehicle buyers and restaurant owners, TV and movie producers and racetrack operators — will be pushing in 2014 to get their breaks restored as well.

But it's the broader business tax breaks that will set off the largest lobbying frenzy. Tax breaks for research and development, capital expenditures and overseas financial service profits were worth a total of just under $50 billion in 2013.

Corporations will want those savings back — and campaign donations will flow accordingly, Edwards says.

"A number of these are used essentially as fundraising tools for members of Congress who serve on tax-writing committees," he says. "Either these tax breaks are a good policy, in which case they should be made permanent, or they're not, in which case they should be repealed."

Members of Congress typically say that they want certain provisions in the tax code made permanent. Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, for example, has introduced legislation that would enshrine a tax credit for companies that hire veterans. (Established in 2011, it's set to expire on Wednesday.)

But making tax cuts permanent increases the deficit. And maybe Edwards is on to something about the economic value — at least to members of Congress — of being asked to renew tax breaks every year or so.

"The lobbyists took care of their interests, taking money from their clients, keeping as much money as possible, weeks ago," complains Edward Hamilton, author of the Ministry of Rum blog.

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