Wonky

'Rum Cliff' And Other Close Shaves In The Tax, Spending Deal

The 'rum tax' is extended. i i

The 'rum tax' is extended. istock hide caption

itoggle caption istock
The 'rum tax' is extended.

The 'rum tax' is extended.

istock

You might have thought the intense partisan negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff were all about who wins and who loses when it comes to taxes and government programs.

And that assessment would be essentially correct — but some of the winners might strike you as a bit odd.

Tucked away in the bill's obscure cul-de-sacs are a bevy of obscure tax and spending provisions. We picked five for your perusal. Here goes:

NASCAR: Section 312 of the bill extends a provision that places National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing tracks in the same category as amusement parks for tax purposes. That allows owners to depreciate the cost of a new track in just seven years instead of the more common 15- to 39-year time frame. To qualify, a track must be a permanent facility and host an inaugural race within three years of completion. Estimates are that the tax break is worth $70 million to Daytona Beach, Fla.-based NASCAR.

Asparagus growers: The measure includes a provision that extends "market loss assistance" for asparagus producers who are being hurt by low-cost asparagus coming in from South America. The subsidy amounts to $15 million a year — half going to fresh-market asparagus production and the other half to processed or frozen production.

Hollywood: Section 317 of the bill retroactively extends (for a total of two years) "special expensing rules" to certain film and television producers. The cost of the production can't exceed $15 million (or $20 million if the production is in a designated low-income area) as long as three-quarters of the production is done inside the United States. The rule allows production expenses to be deducted in the year they occur instead of depreciated over a period of years. The break is meant to encourage U.S.-based productions. It's expected to cost the government $266 million this year.

Rum tax: The bill extends by two years a $13.50 per proof-gallon tax on rum. The revenue from the tax goes into the coffers of the treasuries of the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service, Puerto Rico raked in $371 million from the tax in 2008, while the U.S. Virgin Islands received almost $100 million. The New York Times reported in 2010 that the origin of the tax dates back nearly a century:

"Because rum producers in the islands are exempt from federal excise taxes, the government imposed an "equalization tax" on Puerto Rican rum producers in 1917 and gave the money to the commonwealth. In 1954, the United States extended the arrangement to the Virgin Islands.

"For half a century, the program allowed the islands to replenish their depleted treasuries and pay for infrastructure, schools and social services. Puerto Rico used less than 10 percent of the $450 million it received last year to provide marketing support and production subsidies to rum companies, according to government officials, leaving the rest for the island."

Electric scooters: The bill extends a tax credit for qualified two- or three-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles, amounting to 10 percent of the cost of the vehicle up to $2,500. The vehicle must be "manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways," be capable of reaching 45 mph and be powered by a minimum 4 kilowatt-hour battery (up from 2.5 kilowatt-hours previously). The retroactive extension is good until Jan. 1, 2014.

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