Death and taxes


NO MATTER how congressional Republicans package it, their attempt to eliminate the "death tax" is a boon to America's millionaires and billionaires.

For those who will inherit the fortunes of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, repeal of this tax would mean getting their hands on billions of dollars now earmarked for the national treasury.

Here are the facts:

Ninety-eight percent of Americans aren't affected by the estate tax.

Only 20,000 estates in 1998 valued between $600,000 and $1 million paid the tax. Their average tax bill? Just $45,800.

Fewer than 3,000 estates, worth $5 million or more, accounted for 51 percent of all taxes paid.

If the estate tax were abolished, it would mean a $20 billion bonanza for the richest among us.

Critics of the tax, who succeeded in gaining House passage of a repeal bill last week on a 279-136 vote, argue that it hinders wealth-formation and endangers small businesses and small farming operations.

Yet very few farming and small-business families pay this tax, thanks to estate-planning and loopholes in the existing law. For instance, farms and family businesses worth less than $1.3 million are already exempted.

Repealing the tax is the wrong approach, but it is part of the GOP's campaign agenda for November. Ignored is the huge loss of federal tax revenue: $28 billion over the next five years, $77 billion in the following five years, and $50 million a year after 2010.

That's money that should be used to shore up the long-term viability of Medicare and Social Security. Those are programs that help all Americans, not just the rich or near-rich.

President Clinton has threatened a veto. He favors a more modest approach to lower the top estate-tax rate from 55 percent to 44 percent, raise the exemption for estates immediately to $1.1 million and let farms and family businesses worth up to $4 million escape the tax.

That would lessen the tax burden on families inheriting vast fortunes. Far fewer heirs would pay the tax, too. The impact on the federal treasury would also be far more modest.

A compromise along these lines is the only one that stands a chance this year. Republicans in Washington ought to stop their electioneering long enough to take what they can get -- before they're tagged, once again, as the party of the rich.

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