WASHINGTON One homebuilder that's under federal investigation and has left starter home communities in Charlotte, N.C., struggling with foreclosures is vying for a tax break in the almost $900 billion stimulus bill being considered by Congress.
Beazer Homes USA is one of 37 companies that signed on to a letter last week urging senators to give businesses a waiver on income taxes they'd owe on canceled debt.
The tax break, estimated to cost more than $19 billion, has widespread support across several industries mortgage bankers, truckers, farmers and contractors among them.
Atlanta-based Beazer is the subject of a mortgage-lending probe involving the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The North Carolina Real Estate Commission is also investigating the company's lending practices.
According to congressional lobbying records, Beazer General Services uses two lobbying firms to work on the economic stimulus bill and tax issues. The records show that Beazer lobbyists are working for the business tax break, to support homebuyer tax incentives and to overhaul the Federal Housing Administration and other housing agencies.
Leslie Kratcoski, Beazer's vice president of corporate communications, declined to comment.
The tax-break proposal "would allow many companies to restructure their balance sheets and commit scarce capital to productive investment such as job creation and preservation, rather than servicing current debt obligations," said the letter sent to senators by companies including Rite-Aid, Western Union, Dish Network and MGM Mirage.
The proposal would also reduce "the level of 'toxic' debt held by financial institutions," it said.
Right now, overleveraged businesses can ask their lenders to renegotiate their loans. If the lender agrees, for example, that the borrower can pay back only $750,000 of a $1 million loan, the $250,000 that's forgiven is counted as income and the borrower has to pay taxes on that amount.
Some senators, led by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., want to waive those tax rules on "cancellation of indebtedness" for two years.
A version that made it into the Senate's economic stimulus bill but not in the House bill would delay rather than waive the tax owed and require that it be paid back over four years. It would apply only to transactions involving cash, which the business lobbyists say doesn't go far enough in this cash-strapped economy.
Making it more attractive for businesses to renegotiate their debt is an urgent concern because the debt to Gross Domestic Product ratio in the U.S. is higher than it's been in a century, said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading proponent of the tax break.
"You must deleverage this debt in the American economy and until we do, the economy will continue to lean back on its heels," he said.
Josten said that commercial properties such as shopping centers tend to take out shorter-term loans than individuals five or 10 years vs. 30 years, for example and they tend to be backloaded in the final year. The borrrowers usually refinance before that last huge chunk of the payment is due. That's likely to become harder, however, with retailers closing stores and not producing rent.