A Showdown, Some Backlash and Big Bets

The Highway Trust Fund is almost out of gas. Congress leaves for its month-long recess on Friday, but without legislative action the fund will run out in August. The Senate is expected to vote on the amended bill this week, though it needs 60 votes to pass. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had scheduled a vote late last week on a short-term $10.9 billion patch, but the Senate couldn’t agree on amendments related to pension smoothing, tax compliance, or the fate of the 18.4 cent per gallon gasoline tax. Raising that tax could close the fund’s annual $16 billion shortfall. If history is any guide that would be too easy, and therefore, impossible.

A Main Street drugstore chain makes a move to the corner of lower taxes and American dismay. Illinois-based Walgreens continues its pursuit of Swiss-based Alliance Boots, a drugstore chain with stores in Britain. Public reaction has been visceral, if virtual: Two citizen groups delivered 70,000 online signatures to Walgreens’ flagship store in Chicago late last week to protest the move. But bad press might not offset Walgreens’ projected tax savings of $4 billion over five years.

Speaking of Main Street dismay: Wall Street hedge funds are betting on inversion outcomes. Company stock can rise after an inversion, given the promise of its future tax benefits. According to the Wall Street Journal, (paywall) the Jana hedge fund has taken a $1 billion position in the Walgreens move. Right now, almost a dozen inversion transactions are in the works. Together the deals are worth over $100 billion. Deal-making seems to be accelerating given Congressional and Presidential attention. So much for corporate tax reform?

Maybe Congress will be able to come together for the ABLE Act. Bipartisan affection for the legislation seems apparent. The ABLE Act would allow individuals to set up  tax-exempt accounts to pay certain expenses for people with disabilities. These include  higher education, a primary residence, transportation, getting and keeping a job, and health and wellness. The accounts would be organized by states (much like 529 tuition savings) and not limit the beneficiary’s eligibility for Medicaid and most other means-tested federal programs. The House Ways & Means Committee may consider the bill this week. The Senate version, estimated to cost $19.2 billion over the next 10 years, was examined at a Finance panel Subcommittee hearing last week.

Would a balanced budget amendment help solve the nation’s debt problem? The answer is “No,” according to TPC’s Henry Aaron. In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee late last week, he argues that “instituting a federal balanced budget amendment would negatively impact the economy and threaten the nation’s financial stability.” The budget rule, Aaron argues, would likely be used for political leverage and changed in the interest of political expedience.

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