Brian Dake

IRS: Cost of Home Testing for COVID-19 is Eligible Medical Expense; Reimbursable under FSAs, HSAs

The Internal Revenue Service reminds taxpayers today that the cost of home testing for COVID-19 is an eligible medical expense that can be paid or reimbursed under health flexible spending arrangements (health FSAs), health savings accounts (HSAs), health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), or Archer medical savings accounts (Archer MSAs). That is because the cost to diagnose COVID-19 is an eligible medical expense for tax purposes.

The IRS also reminds taxpayers that the costs of personal protective equipment, such as masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, for the primary purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19 are eligible medical expenses that can be paid or reimbursed under health FSAs, HSAs, HRAs, or Archer MSAs. Additional information is available on IRS.gov.

New Federal Rule to Require Businesses with 100+ Employees Mandate Vaccinations

President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that federal government employees and contractors will now be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will create a rule for private businesses with 100 or more employees to require their employees to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

A senior administration official estimated that this new OSHA requirement will cover about 80 million workers and businesses that do not comply with the agency’s rule can face substantial fees — up to $14,000. OSHA will require these employers to offer paid time off for vaccination.

About 75% of the adult U.S. population has received at least one vaccine dose and 64.4% of the adult U.S. population is fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State Alcohol Tax Revenues Surge During Pandemic

Revenues from the state’s excise taxes on alcoholic beverage sales rose to $73.8 million in the 2021 fiscal year that ended June 30, a 16.6% increase over the $63.3 million collected in fiscal year 2020, according to preliminary data from the Department of Revenue (DOR). These collections come from state taxes with rates that vary depending on the type of alcoholic beverage: beer, wine, hard cider, or liquor.

Wisconsin’s 16.6% preliminary annual increase in alcohol excise tax revenues far exceeds the generally modest increases seen in prior years. Between 2009 and 2020, the percentage increase in alcohol tax collections exceeded 2.4% in only one year.

Alcohol excise taxes in Wisconsin are based on the volume of beverage sold, rather than its price. Beer is taxed at approximately 6.5 cents per gallon; wine is taxed at 25 cents per gallon (about 6.6 cents per liter) if it has an alcohol content of 14% or less by volume. If its alcohol content exceeds 14%, it is taxed at 45 cents per gallon (about 11.9 cents per liter).

Hard cider is taxed at 6 cents per gallon if its alcohol content is less than 7%; if it exceeds that level, it is taxed at the same rate as wine. Distilled liquor, meanwhile is taxed at a far higher rate: $3.25 per gallon.

Beer taxes are paid by Wisconsin wholesalers and breweries on a monthly basis on sales of beer in Wisconsin or shipments into the state; all other alcohol taxes are collected on Wisconsin sales and shipments into the state through monthly payments by distributors, out-of-state shippers, and Wisconsin manufacturers and wineries. In addition, the state’s general 5% sales tax also applies to alcohol sales and is collected by retailers based on price – we did not look at any state of Wisconsin data on general sales taxes.

Wisconsin has long ranked among the bottom tier of states for the rates at which it taxes alcohol. Its beer tax rate is among the nation’s lowest, ranking 48th among the 50 states in 2021, according to the Tax Foundation. Two of the other states with the lowest beer tax rates – Missouri and Colorado – share a tradition with Wisconsin as major beer producers. However, Wisconsin’s wine tax rate also ranks low at 43rd and its liquor rate ranks 41st.

Wisconsin Law Prohibiting Simultaneous Collection of SSDI and UI Benefits Targeted in New Federal Lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Wisconsin’s unemployment system discriminates against people with disabilities. Currently, Wisconsin automatically rejects unemployment claims from people who received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in that month.

SSDI is a federal program that employees and employers pay into through taxes. If a disability prevents someone from holding “substantial gainful” employment, they can apply to receive SSDI payments. The program encourages people to work as much as they are able. The standard for “substantial gainful” employment varies from year to year. In 2020, non-blind people with disabilities were eligible for SSDI if they made less than $1,260 per month.

In 2013, Wisconsin passed a law saying people receiving Social Security disability cannot simultaneously receive state unemployment benefits. Lawmakers said at the time the goal was to prevent fraud and “double dippers.”

The class-action lawsuit asks for a permanent halt to Wisconsin’s SSDI unemployment benefits ban; it also asks for an injunction to temporarily stop the ban while the issue works its way through the courts, an allowance for SSDI recipients to go back and file unemployment claims from the last six years, and a repayment of unemployment benefits to SSDI recipients who initially received unemployment but were forced to pay it back because of their disability payments.

Governor Announces Extension of the $100 COVID-19 Vaccine Reward Program

On Friday, Governor Evers announced that eligibility for the $100 COVID-19 Vaccine Reward Program will be extended to Sunday, September 19, 2021. The program opened August 20 and is available to anyone ages 12 and up in Wisconsin who gets their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by September 19.

In order to receive the $100 reward, Wisconsin residents will need to register by filling out the form available at 100.wisconsin.gov or call 844-684-1064 to register over the phone. Information submitted will be used to verify that individuals have a valid first COVID-19 vaccine dose reported to the Wisconsin Immunization Registry (WIR) between August 20 and September 19.

Rewards cards will be mailed to the individual’s Wisconsin address and may take six to eight weeks to be mailed to participants. Registration for the program will remain open until September 30, 2021, but only those who receive their first COVID-19 vaccine dose within the program window are eligible for the $100 reward.

For more information on the reward program, visit the DHS $100 reward page or call 844-684-1064.

Wisconsin Tax Collections Continue To Exceed Expectations

According to the memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state brought in about $19.6 billion in tax revenue in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which is roughly 12 percent higher than the previous year and $319 million more than the most recent estimate predicted.

The collections leave the state in the strongest fiscal shape it has been in during any budget cycle in recent memory. It is a sharp departure from expectations many had of declining collections and a dire budget picture during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under state law, if tax collections exceed projections, half of the surplus amount must be deposited into the state’s so-called “rainy day fund.” Because of that law, the memo projects that about $967 million will be deposited into the fund.

According to the budget office, the rainy day fund has a current balance of about $762 million. The deposit will bring that total to about $1.7 billion.

The increased revenue figures come as the state continues to receive billions in federal coronavirus relief money. Evers has about $2.5 billion from the latest round of aid to direct around the state over the next few years.

The figures released Thursday are based on preliminary data released by the state Department of Revenue. Finalized data will be made public in October.

Jobless Claims Hit New Pandemic-Era Low

First-time filings for unemployment insurance hit a pandemic-era low last week, a sign that the jobs market is improving heading into the fall. Jobless claims for the week ended Aug. 14 totaled 348,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The last time claims were this low was March 14, 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic declaration hit and sent the U.S. economy spiraling into its deepest but briefest recession on record.

Continuing claims also fell, dropping to 2.82 million on a 79,000 decline from the week before. That data runs a week behind the headline claims number and also represented a new low since the pandemic struck.

The total of those collecting benefits under all programs fell to 11.74 million, a decline of 311,787 for the week ended July 31 and owing mostly to a big drop in those receiving enhanced benefits, which will come to a complete close in September. A year ago, the total under all programs stood at 28.7 million.

Overall, the drop could be good news for a jobs market that has seen nonfarm payrolls increase by 2.5 million over the past three months and the unemployment rate fall to 5.4% from 6.3% at the beginning of the year. Thursday’s data reflects the period the Labor Department uses as its survey week for the monthly nonfarm payrolls count.

Social Security Board of Trustees Issues Annual Financial Report

Yesterday, the Social Security Board of Trustees released its annual report on the long-term financial status of the Social Security Trust Funds. The combined asset reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASI and DI) Trust Funds are projected to become depleted in 2034, one year earlier than projected last year, with 78 percent of benefits payable at that time.

The OASI Trust Fund is projected to become depleted in 2033, one year sooner than last year’s estimate, with 76 percent of benefits payable at that time. The DI Trust Fund is estimated to become depleted in 2057, eight years earlier than last year’s estimate, with 91 percent of benefits still payable.

In the 2021 Annual Report to Congress, the Trustees announced:

  • The asset reserves of the combined OASI and DI Trust Funds increased by $11 billion in 2020 to a total of $2.908 trillion.
  • The total annual cost of the program is projected to exceed total annual income, for the first time since 1982, in 2021 and remain higher throughout the 75-year projection period. As a result, asset reserves are expected to decline during 2021. Social Security’s cost has exceeded its non-interest income since 2010.
  • The year when the combined trust fund reserves are projected to become depleted, if Congress does not act before then, is 2034 – one year earlier than last year’s projection. At that time, there would be sufficient income coming in to pay 78 percent of scheduled benefits.

“The Trustees’ projections in this year’s report include the best estimates of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program,” said Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. “The pandemic and its economic impact have had an effect on Social Security’s Trust Funds, and the future course of the pandemic is still uncertain. Yet, Social Security will continue to play a critical role in the lives of 65 million beneficiaries and 176 million workers and their families during 2021.”

 

UW–Madison Ranked First among Public Universities by Washington Monthly

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is the highest ranking national public university and fourth overall in Washington Monthly’s 2021 College Guide and Rankings.

UW–Madison ranked seventh in research expenditures, seventh in the number of science and engineering PhDs awarded, and 25th in faculty accolades (number of faculty receiving prestigious awards and number who are members of the National Academies, relative to the number of full-time faculty). On the “best bang for the buck” list of national universities, it ranked fourth.

The university also performed well in the category of service, ranking 11th in the number of alumni, relative to college size, who go on to serve in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. UW–Madison is among the top 10 schools with the highest percentage of degrees awarded in service-oriented majors, including health, education and social work.

State of Wisconsin’s Bond Rating Upgraded by Multiple Agencies.

On Friday, Governor Tony Evers announced that the state of Wisconsin’s bond rating has been upgraded by multiple agencies. Kroll Bond Rating Agency upgraded its long-term rating to AAA from AA+ for General Obligation (GO) Bonds, and S&P Global Ratings raised its long-term rating to AA+ from AA.

The upgraded ratings will provide the state of Wisconsin an avenue to borrow money at lower interest rates, which will result in lower debt service costs to Wisconsin taxpayers. The AAA rating from Kroll Bond Rating Agency is the first time the state’s underlying bond rating has been at the AAA-level by any rating agency since 1982. Kroll had last upgraded the state’s rating to AA+ in 2017, and S&P had last upgraded the state’s rating to AA in 2008.

In upgrading Wisconsin’s rating, Kroll Bond Rating Agency cited, the state’s “substantial liquidity, evidenced by a near tripling of budget reserves over the past three years; continuing, healthy revenue growth, despite substantial tax cuts; and an ongoing, post-COVID-19 recovery, fueled by a mature and expanding economy and favorable business climate.” S&P Global Ratings noted it expects the state “will continue to take responsive budgetary actions” to ensure the state’s fiscal stability, specifically pointing to the governor’s authority to responsibly manage the state’s budget. The state also maintains its ratings from Moody’s Investors Service at Aa1 and Fitch Ratings at AA+.