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November 16, 2017 From the Chair

So Much to Do, So Little Time

By Karen L. Hawkins, Hawkins Law, Yachats, OR


The Section’s Joint Fall CLE Meeting with the Trust & Estate Law Division of the Real Property, Trust & Estate Law Section on September 14-16 was attended by over 900. Notwithstanding the challenges of going forward with a meeting in Austin, Texas, in the midst of one of the worst hurricane seasons in recent history, the committees did their usual stellar jobs in providing top-notch continuing education presentations and materials for the attendees. Cutting-edge discussions addressing the new partnership audit rules, including the Section’s technical comment submissions on specific aspects of the very lengthy regulations; virtual currencies in the tax system; current ACA issues; current sales tax issues affected by cloud computing; ethical duties for technology compliance; and the status of private debt collection are just a few of the presentations worthy of your consideration.

I particularly want to acknowledge the yeopersons’ efforts expended by Section staff and members of the Pro Bono and Tax Clinics and Individual and Family Taxation Committees in pulling together at the last minute a special Saturday morning program (hot breakfast for all!) entitled “Hurricane Harvey—Tax Issues for Disaster Survivors.” The presenters and the materials, including the newly updated “Assisting Disaster Survivors” chapter from the Section’s forthcoming 7th Edition of Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS, were terrific. You may listen to the audio of the presentation here. More resources for providing tax assistance to disaster survivors can be found on the Section’s website here. The Section also invited a number of local nonprofit organizations involved in hurricane relief efforts to send representatives to the Joint Fall CLE Meeting.  Central Texas Foodbank and the Red Cross were present through signage and a virtual donation station for people who wished to make donations.

The Section Luncheon and Plenary Session featured Michael Graetz, Columbia Alumni Professor of Tax Law at Columbia Law School. His comments on the history and future of tax reform were provocative, and well-received. I invite you to listen to Professor Graetz’s presentation here. I also recommend his recently published article, “Heading Off a Cliff,” which is derived from his presentation in Austin.

As a new added benefit of attending the meeting, registered attendees can now access the complete materials with one click to a zip file that is distributed by e-mail after the meeting. If you were unable to attend, however, I encourage you to review the programming schedule to see what you missed that might be of interest. In addition, whether you attended or not, all Section members have complimentary access to the written materials from Austin (as well as previous Section Meetings) on the website: (1) in a static database called TaxIQ, which is organized by meeting and committee name, and (2) in an easily searchable database on Westlaw made available as a member benefit from the Section’s publishing sponsor, Thomson Reuters. Both options can be accessed from the TaxIQ page. Audiorecordings of individual sessions are available through our outside digital partner, DCP.

Pro Bono Update

Under the watchful eye of Vice Chair, Pro Bono and Outreach, Bahar Schippel and the tireless contributions of the Section’s 2017 Spragen’s Pro Bono Award recipient, Wells Hall, the Military VITA/ Adopt-a-Base program encompasses more than 40 military installations throughout the United States. Recruiting efforts have been very successful due to increased exposure and improved organization in recent years. We still have gaps in coverage, however, and are in particular need of volunteers for military installations located in Texas and California. If you or your firm are interested in a meaningful and rewarding experience assisting our nation’s active military with tax preparation, please consider getting involved in this very important Section project. In California, volunteers should contact our Brunswick Public Service Fellow, Catherine Strouse at  [email protected].   For Texas, volunteers should contact either Bahar at [email protected], or Wells at [email protected].   Key cities with installations needing coverage include Los Angeles and Fresno in California; and Austin, El Paso, Abilene and San Angelo, in Texas. Other areas in need of assistances include Colorado Springs, CO, Omaha, NE, Phoenix, AZ, and Little Rock, AR. Please help us close these gaps before the start of tax season.

As reported in my last column, Bahar Schippel has also begun the process of identifying partners with whom the Tax Section might collaborate in providing pro bono legal assistance for our growing elderly population. Through Bahar’s efforts, we have learned that there are several potential opportunities for Section involvement.  Recently, Section representatives met by conference call with representatives from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) to discuss collaboration with TAS on its annual taxpayer outreach initiative. Of particular attraction to me is the opportunity to join TAS during initiatives which promise to heavily impact our elder population. The Taxpayer Advocate has identified seniors as a significant vulnerable population on which she wishes to have TAS focus. Over the next several months, Bahar will coordinate information with TAS and identify major population areas where the Section has a concentration of members who can volunteer to join TAS personnel during their outreach events. The nature of the volunteer opportunities, locations, and timing will be announced using a variety of media once the details have been refined.  In the meantime, be aware this opportunity is potentially coming to your locale and consider stepping up when the call for action is made.

In addition to the above, Bahar has also been communicating with the AARP Foundation and has identified two existing programs which could use volunteers: Tax-Aide which operates a VITA program aimed at the elderly from nearly 6,000 sites in the US; and AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, a program based in Washington, D.C., which provides pro bono legal services for the elderly. There is a significant need for volunteers who can provide tax-related legal services, which typically encompass non-filing, collection, I.D. theft, household employee, and refund issues. This program is available exclusively to Washington, D.C. residents. If you find either of these existing pro bono opportunities attractive, please contact Bahar directly at [email protected].

Budget and Reimbursement Policy Revisions

As part of our ongoing review of the Section’s budget and financial commitments, difficult financial decisions were made during the business meeting of the Taxation Section Council in Austin. These types of challenging, belt-tightening decisions have had to be made over the past two years, and will continue to be required to reach, and sustain, a revenue-neutral budget.  If the Section is to maintain its stated commitments to provide services to its membership, tax assistance to vulnerable taxpayers, and leadership in support of a workable tax system, it is imperative that we continue to cut expenses while also seeking additional ways to increase income. The Section has run a substantial deficit for the past several years, an unacceptable situation for the future. In FY 2016-17, under the leadership of immediate past Chair, William Caudill, the Section Council began the difficult process of scrutinizing every budget line-item for potential cost cutting. Significant progress was made, but the work is not complete. Every Council member has been involved every step of the way and has had every opportunity to express his/her positions on multiple occasions on every budget-cutting decision.

The Section currently spends over $150,000 providing travel reimbursement to government and academic speakers; other academics who are in Section leadership positions and members of Section administrative committees; Nolan and Public Service Fellows; LITC scholarship recipients; and the ABA Young Lawyers Division liaison. In addition, many in the foregoing categories are eligible for significantly reduced or waived registration fees. Council Directors, Officers, committee leadership and members of administrative committees who are not full-time academics receive no travel reimbursement or meeting registration fee reduction (this has been the policy since 2012). That policy was revisited, along with other expense items starting in July 2017, culminating at the Austin meeting in September in a nearly unanimous vote to revise the policy.

The revisions have some impact on all the previously referenced reimbursement categories, both for consistency and for cost cutting. The decision was neither easy nor made lightly. Having all categories represented at our meetings is vital to our success as a Section, and we remain committed to doing what we can to support that attendance. In a perfect world, perhaps there is a more perfect solution. The reality for this leadership team is that there is more work to be done to balance the budget, and that requires continued vigilance by the leadership of the Section.

A chart summarizing the new travel reimbursement policy may be accessed here. As an overview:

  1. Full-time academics who qualify as young lawyers under the ABA guidelines (36 years or younger, or in practice for 5 or fewer years) will receive reimbursement for airfare at published ABA zone rates if they are speakers or are serving the Section in a leadership capacity. They will also be eligible for the reduced meeting registration fee. This change is effective immediately.
  2. Full-time academic speakers who do not qualify as young lawyers under the ABA policy will no longer receive reimbursement for airfare. They will, however, continue to qualify for the reduced meeting registration fee. This change is effective immediately.
  3. Full-time academics currently in leadership roles will receive airfare reimbursement and per diem under the former policy for the balance of FY 2017-18 (i.e., the 2018 Midyear and May Meetings). Commencing September 2018, academics in leadership roles will be treated as provided above in #1 and #2.
  4. Government speakers whose agencies permit them  to accept reimbursement will be entitled to reimbursement for airfare up to the published zone rate and hotel costs at the government rate for up to three nights (if in attendance at the meeting for the entire period). They will continue to have the meeting registration fee waived and will receive complimentary tickets to Section-sponsored events (receptions, luncheon, etc.). This change is effective immediately.
  5. Nolan Fellows will receive airfare reimbursement at published zone rates and waived meeting registration fees. This change is effective immediately.
  6. Christine Brunswick Public Service Fellows will receive airfare reimbursement at published zone rates, hotel costs for up to three nights, and waived meeting registration fees. This change is effective immediately.
  7. LITC Scholarship recipients will continue to receive airfare at published zone rates, hotel costs for up to three nights, and waived meeting registration fees. This change is effective immediately.
  8. The Chair, in consultation with appropriate Section officers, may exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis with respect to implementing this policy.

If you are a committee chair, or someone responsible for planning a committee program for San Diego or Washington, D.C., please ensure that these guidelines are articulated to any government and academic speakers you invite to participate.

The Tax Lawyer Looks Forward

Under the strong leadership of Julie Divola, Vice Chair, Publications, the Section has reached an agreement in principle with the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law to engage students from its full-time Tax LL.M. Program as student editors of our flagship journal, The Tax Lawyer. While negotiations are on-going, all anticipate a smooth and complete transition from our current collaboration with Georgetown University Law Center by September 2018. The Tax Section is grateful to the generations of Georgetown J.D. students who have served as student editors of The Tax Lawyer over nearly 50 years. The Tax Section is excited to undertake this new chapter with Northwestern and believes that partnering with an LL.M. program presents enhanced opportunities in terms of the editorial support, student note-writing, and involvement of Northwestern’s LL.M. graduates as active Section members in the future.

Tax Reform – We Have Your Back

As you know the House has released its highly publicized tax reform bill, which has given us much to contemplate in our professional as well as personal lives. The Senate recently weighed in with its version, which not surprisingly looks different from the House version in significant ways. While conference reconciliation will take some time, we know that the President is pushing an aggressive timeline and momentum appears to be in his favor.

As the voice of our nation’s tax lawyers, the Tax Section is monitoring these events closely and making plans to customize and deliver CLE programming on key tax reform topics. Earlier this week on November 13, the Section partnered with the ABA Center on Professional Development to present “U.S. Tax Reform: Are You and Your Clients Prepared?” – a special member-benefit webinar, which members can still access for free at Fred Murray, Vice-Chair, CLE, brought together a distinguished panel of former Treasury officials, including Lisa Zarlenga and Mark Mazur, to give us the benefit of their experience for this timely presentation. Over 800 attendees participated in the live event.  I encourage you to check the Section’s website for updates on additional tax reform programming in the coming months.

Government Courtesy Calls

Tax reform notwithstanding, we were very grateful that the leadership and staffs at Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service took the time to meet with me and Section representatives last week to discuss a broad range of issues, among them: (1) the status of the administrative guidance process; (2) guidance on cryptocurrency; (3) guidance under section 402(b) regarding funded foreign plans; (4) implementation of ASC 606, Notice 2017-17, and accounting method changes; (5) guidance regarding the demise of  LIBOR; and (6) the new partnership audit procedures impact on state tax administration. Additional topics discussed during our meeting with the IRS included: (1) procedures under section 6511(h) for requesting suspension of the limitations period due to financial disability; (2) penalty abatement for e-filed returns that are not accepted; (3) issues relating to the stated due date for petitions to the Tax Court to review an adverse Notice of Determination in CDP cases; (4) health insurance exchanges and section 6103 issues; (5) issuance of determination letters for certain qualified retirement plans; (5) advance pricing agreements and restricted consents under Notice 2015-41; and (6) Appeals conference practices.  Thanks to all the committees who stepped up to raise and brief these topics in advance of the meeting. Our audiences at both agencies were actively engaged in the discussions and expressed their appreciation for the myriad on-going contributions made by the Tax Section to tax administration.

Thanks especially to Julian Kim, Vice Chair, Government Relations, for organizing the meetings, and to our subject matter experts, Lisa Zarlenga, Kurt Lawson, Ellen McElroy, Fred Nicely, Keith Fogg, John Breen, and Sheri Dillon, for their articulate and relevant presentations.

Next Up – San Diego

It is clearly an exciting time in our profession, and we will cover it all in San Diego at the Tax Section’s Midyear Meeting on February 8-10, 2018, at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. Having been privy to some of the planning already underway, I have no doubt that San Diego is shaping up to be another excellent meeting with the usual high quality legal educational programs. Edward Kleinbard, the Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law at the USC Gould School of Law, has agreed to address the Section Luncheon and Plenary Session on Saturday, February 10, 2018. Prior to joining the USC faculty, Mr. Kleinbard was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation. In addition to numerous articles on a large spectrum of tax issues, Mr. Kleinbard is the author of the highly acclaimed We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014). I hope you are already marking your calendar for the entire meeting, and that you’ll make plans to attend the Plenary Session to hear Mr. Kleinbard, and what promises to be a thought-provoking presentation.

Nominating Season Is Here

The Midyear Meeting is also the important time when the Section’s Nominating Committee meets to make its final recommendations concerning candidates for appointment to various Council positions for the fiscal year 2018-2019. The Tax Section has existed for 77 years. During that period, only two women have chaired the Section: Pamela Olson first stepped up to the task in 2000. Unfortunately for us (but certainly not for her) Pam left to join Treasury and did not complete her term. It was six more years before the second woman, Susan Serota, was selected by her peers to lead the Section. She served her full term with distinction. Now, as the Section approaches 78, we have our third woman chair. I’m excited about my role and for the opportunity to make what is for me the ultimate contribution to the profession.

I would like to conclude this column with a shout-out to the many women with whom I have enjoyed working over my nearly 40 years as a Section member and who I have had the pleasure of watching as they move into the Section’s leadership ranks.  Their presence and contributions have changed the entire complexion of the Section for the better. There is, and has been for quite some time, an ample pool of competent leaders in this Section who happen to be women. I sincerely hope it will not be another ten years before leadership identifies and nominates our fourth woman chair.