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State offers session focusing on new tax break - Opportunity Zones

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The state Department of Commerce is convening a day-long session in Seattle next week to help an army of accountants, attorneys, developers, and investment advisors get a better grasp of the unlikely new Federal tax tool that will allow the wealthy to make money while making a difference.

That tool is the Qualified Opportunity Zone provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that will permit those owing capital gains tax to delay, reduce or even totally avoid those taxes by investing in special funds designed to start businesses and provide other steps to help economically distressed communities.

What's referred to as the OZ act wasn't actually contained in the original major rewrite of the tax reform act that was crafted by congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration. Rather it grew out of a measure filed a year earlier called the Investing in Opportunity Act.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, who wrote The 2017 Investing in Opportunity Act measure that was filed and then forgotten in committee, gathered support from moderates of both parties in a true example of working together to revive the bill as an addition to the major tax bill.

Its inclusion in the Tax Act has attracted comments like "for investors who want to make money and make a difference," and "for investors who want to make money and do good in one fell swoop.'

Governors of the 50 states were brought into the implementation of the act by having the opportunity to designate census tracts where various business ventures would be eligible for the OZ benefits, through investment by Qualified Opportunity Funds.

The program pinpointed more than 8,500 eligible census tracks in the U.S., with 139 of them in this state. Most of the tracts where businesses and projects can be located to attract capital are single tracts but in one area in this state, 11 tracts were put together as a unit.

While the IRS must still announce final details, like who can legitimately invest in projects, interested investors and those who would like to attract investors have been poring over details of the legislation.

Sarah Lee, project director in the office of Economic Development and Competitiveness in the State Department of Commerce, who has been closely involved with Washington State's role implementing the act, told me "listening sessions" in Wenatchee, Spokane, Tacoma, and Clallam County led up to the Seattle session next week.

She invited the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco to join the Department of Commerce and the National Development Council (NDC) to plan and put on the day-long event at the Bell Harbor Conference Center.

Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who with the state treasurer Duane Davidson and Commerce Director Brian Bonlender took the first pass at the census tracts to include, then forwarded the list Inslee for final determination, will welcome attendees at the Bell Harbor event, in remarks expected to tout the opportunity the act presents.

Chuck Depew, senior director and West Team Leader at the NDC, said: "In the development world, you don't often meet people with high net worth looking to be involved, but that world is now going to change."

Depew provides technical assistance in project finance, development negotiation and housing finance to communities throughout the Northwest, including Utah and Wyoming and Northern California, for the NDC, which for more than 30 years has worked with local jurisdictions on multiple housing and economic development efforts.

The challenge in the program is how can Opportunity-Zone communities, rural, urban and tribal, encourage mission-driven investors, including private, community and family foundations and social impact investors to be involved.

After Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made it clear to OZ planners in this state that the native-American tribes had to benefit from the program, five tribes participated with six communities in creating an 11-tract zone on the North Olympic Peninsula.

The tribes, along with the key communities in Clallam and Jefferson counties and two port districts, have invited the public to participate and make suggestions for projects that will address economically distressed areas in the two counties in what they have dubbed the Emerald Coast Opportunity Zone.

The project to create the Emerald Coast Opportunity Zone (ECOZ) will be on display at the Bell Harbor event next week and Lee said there is already interest from the Colville Confederates Tribe in Central Washington in looking into the planning that led to the ECOZ.

The Bell Harbor gathering will feature panels of philanthropists, social impact investors, banks and lending entities as well as what is being called a "pitch fest" at which individual entrepreneurs and project innovators will have a chance to "sell" individual projects to the attendees.

Advance billing for the event suggests that Participants "will have the opportunity to work together to engage, inform, and influence key projects in shaping the future of Washington State through investing in local communities with thoughtful leadership and empowering innovative projects.

U.S. investors currently hold an estimated $2.3 trillion in unrealized capital gains on stocks and mutual funds alone-a significant untapped resource for economic development. The QO Zone legislation allows investors to temporarily defer capital gains recognition from the sale of an appreciated asset, but only if they reinvest the gains into a QO Fund.

One analysis of the tax deferral funds suggested: The new QO Funds will "democratize" economic development by allowing a broad array of investors throughout the country to pool resources and mitigate risk. That will increase the scale of investments going to underserved areas and thereby increase the probability of neighborhood turnaround."

It occurred to me that the OZ effort could provide a new recruitment tool for state and local communities since a person owing capital gains can invest those in a qualified census tract in any part of the country.

"While the state hasn't talked about using this for recruitment of companies, it makes perfect sense," Depew said after I told him that officials in Montana told me at an outreach event to Montanans who now live in the Seattle area that they are already seeking to learn how they could make that a state growth strategy.

Thus the logical next step is for states and possibly regions of multiple states, along with businesses and developers, to develop marketing programs to reach out to those seeking to figure out how to invest their capital gains.

The act specifically prohibits any of the approved funds from investing in what the act describes as "sin" businesses, a list that specifically excludes commercial golf courses, country clubs, massage facilities, liquor stores, suntan facilities, and "race track or other facilities used for gambling."

So obviously one business that won't be permitted, particularly where the tribes are involved n an Opportunity Zone, would be a new casino.
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