Grappling With New Taxes

Business officers are becoming "very good friends" with the lawyers in their institutions as they wrestle with paying taxes in an uncertain environment.

July 17, 2019
 

AUSTIN, Tex. -- Colleges and universities have paid or are preparing to pay for the first time two new, much-talked-about taxes under Republicans' 2017 tax-reform law: the so-called parking tax and the endowment tax.

But that doesn't mean all the kinks are worked out yet -- or that the fight over the federal levies is over.

The intricacies involved in paying and calculating the taxes were much discussed during the National Association of College and University Business Officers annual meeting here this week. So was discussion about repeal efforts, at least for the parking tax. NACUBO was asking business officers to sign up for a campaign against the tax, tweet with the hashtag #parktheparkingtax and tell their own local lobbyists to take up the campaign.

“There is actually strong bipartisan support to repeal the parking tax,” Megan Schneider, NACUBO's senior director for government affairs, said during a panel Sunday. “I think we are cautiously optimistic that the parking tax could be repealed.”

It won't be simple in a gridlocked Washington, where lawmakers have a long list of top-level priorities like raising the debt ceiling and agreeing on a budget looming before them. Any tax repeal would be complicated by disagreements over how to pay for repealing a revenue-generating item. Nothing about the parking tax has been simple, though.

Despite its nickname, the tax itself doesn't only cover parking. It's an unrelated business income tax on employee parking and transportation benefits that has been the focus of questions since its introduction.

The tax first kicked in for colleges and universities for the six months from Jan. 1, 2018, through June 30 of that year. Taxes would have been due in mid-November, but since almost every institution files for a six-month extension, most likely paid under a May 15 deadline. Not every college will have to pay the tax -- scattered hands went up when attendees at a Monday session were asked whether they paid. And while the Internal Revenue Service issued interim guidance at the end of 2018 addressing some of the details involved in calculating parking tax burden, the fine print isn't final.

Every university seems to take a slightly different approach to administering parking and transit passes, said Julia Shanahan, executive director of tax for Columbia University. Columbia, for example, doesn't give employees any money for transit passes or parking but allows them to receive money for those priorities on a pretax basis.

“Initially we thought we were completely out of it because we were not giving our employees anything in terms of parking or transit,” she said. “But that wasn't the definition that ended up coming out.”

A significant number of attendees raised their hands when asked if they'd ended pretax options for transportation benefits after the tax was put in place. But some colleges and universities are in municipalities that require them to offer transportation benefits.

Meanwhile, private nonprofit institutions that will be subject to the endowment tax will have to pay it for their first full fiscal year beginning after Jan. 1, 2018. For most, that will be the year running from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019.

Only those institutions with assets of $500,000 per student and at least 500 tuition-paying students will be subject to the endowment tax. That tax isn't strictly levied on endowments, though. It's placed on net investment income from assets not used for exempt and educational purposes.

The U.S. Treasury Department just released guidance on the endowment tax at the end of June. Some institutions may be surprised by what nonendowed assets are to be counted toward the tax, a NACUBO panel said Monday. Calculations using existing databases of institutional endowments seem likely to miss key factors, like interest on student loans or dormitory rental income.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this tax, and we are trying to get our hands around this,” said Liz Clark, NACUBO's vice president for policy and research. “Frankly, they are defining dormitory rental income as investment income. I urge you, again, if you are at a private college or university, to look at all of your lines of revenue. If you are a small institution with some unique revenue lines and you are at or near that 500-student threshold and you have a certain amount of income, this calculation may not play out the way you think it does when you look at IPEDS reporting of endowment size per [full-time enrollment].”

Student loan interest would also be counted as taxable investment income for colleges and universities under the guidance

Panelists also covered a range of other tax issues, including a new excise tax on certain employees making more than $1 million in compensation.

“It's effective for tax years after 2017, so if this applies to you, you would have just finished your filing associated with 2018,” said C. Aaron LeMay, associate vice chancellor for finance and system controller for the University of North Texas system. The way the tax is currently written, it only applies to private colleges and universities and public institutions set up as 501(c)(3) organizations. But some in Congress are said to be interested in fixing language so it would apply to all institutions.

With all of the moving parts, experts recommend consultation and documentation.

“For our institution, we have become very good friends with a couple people in our general counsel's office associated with every position in this tax reform bill to make sure we have documented our position,” LeMay said. “In the event of a review by the IRS of our position, we have the backing of our general counsel's office in every position we have taken.”

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