Reducing Compliance Costs for Small Businesses

September 23, 2014

A new bill from Representative Scott Peters of California would exempt some small businesses from quarterly tax payments. Currently, most businesses must send quarterly returns based on estimated tax to the IRS. This is a prudent piece of legislation that will reduce administrative costs and promote some growth, with virtually no downside.

The bill makes no change to actual tax owed. Instead, it just exempts small businesses from reporting to the IRS on a quarterly basis. Estimated tax for businesses is similar to what withholding does for workers; tax is paid in installments throughout the year rather than all at once on April 15. This works out well for taxpayers who have smooth, predictable cash flows, like mature businesses or salaried workers.

New businesses do not have that kind of certainty. They will have unforeseen expenses, or unexpected bulk orders, or other surprise events that change their taxable income considerably. It is unreasonable to base policy on asking people to predict the unpredictable.

Furthermore, detailed and complex accounting requirements are most wasteful when applied to small businesses. The costs of completing forms do not scale linearly with the size of a business; instead, the burden of complexity is much tougher for smaller firms to bear.

A good principle in tax policy – as well as policy in general – is to let the little things go. This principle has taken form in a legal maxim, de minimis non curat lex, Latin for “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” Currently, any business expected to owe at least $1,000 in tax for the year must file quarterly. $1,000 is a trifling amount to the IRS, one that need not be split into installment payments.

The Peters bill would allow very new businesses, or businesses with less than $1 million in total revenues, to file their taxes only once yearly – an arrangement that seems more reasonable.


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