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Politics

Stimulus Home-Buying Break Flunks Fairness Test

Congress has stirred up a hornet's nest with a minor provision tucked away in the massive economic stimulus package that's on track to be passed this month.

Congress has stirred up a hornet's nest with a minor provision tucked away in the massive economic stimulus package that's on track to be passed this month. The provision seems simple enough: Take a law passed last year that provides a tax credit of up to $7,500 to first-time home buyers and strip out the part that says the credit must be paid back to the federal government over 15 years. Without the easing, the "credit" is essentially a no-interest federal loan. Thus the juicier credit would theoretically spur even more first-time home purchases.

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Problem is, the home buyer credit applies to purchases after April 8, 2008, and before July 1, 2009, while the easing was written to cover only folks who bought a home during the first six months of this year. So under the proposal in the stimulus package, if you purchased your home before Jan. 1, you still have to pay back the credit. Score one for the procrastinators.

Needless to say, folks who acted last year to take advantge of the home buyer credit are pretty upset about the double standard. They're raising a hue and cry that Congress changed the rules in the middle of the game. Why would lawmakers make such an obvious political blunder? It isn't hard to figure out what happened. The point of an economic stimulus package is to spur future economic activity. If what you're trying to do is get more people to buy homes, it doesn't make sense from an economic standpoint to extend the incentive to folks who already made a purchase.

But fairness has to enter the equation, too. Easing the credit just months after creating it is tantamount to saying that it didn't have enough oomph in the first place and should never have included the repayment requirement. If Congress believes the credit needs to be heftier, then shouldn't everyone who qualifies for the credit get it on the same terms? If folks who bought last year put up a big enough stink, it's possible lawmakers will take a second look, but so far they haven't given any indication they're listening to the complaints. Instead they're talking about juicing up the credit in ways that might make recent buyers even madder: Removing the $7,500 maximum and opening up the credit to folks who aren't first-time buyers.

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