'Death tax' debate

by Bernard Shire
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While most agree that death and taxes are two eventualities in life, most business owners, including meat and poultry processors, also agree that the two put together – “death taxes” – form a lethal combination that can be hurtful to businesses, especially small ones.

For that reason, members of Congress are going to take another stab this year at doing away with estate taxes – and they may have a better chance of pulling it off in 2017 than they’ve had in a long time. In both the US Senate and House of Representatives, bi-partisan legislation has been introduced to get rid of this onerous tax once and for all. The Death Tax Repeal Act of 2017 was introduced by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.).

Trade associations in the meat and poultry industry support the repeal of the tax. The problem is that many producers and processors, especially smaller-size businesses, tend to have a lot of physical assets, but not so much cash. Much of the estate value can be in land or buildings, livestock and animals, and processing equipment. Yet the law forces these businesses to pay the tax based on the non-liquid portions of their assets. Congress has decided to put most of its energy and effort into repealing the death tax.

Late last year, Congress tried to force a vote aimed at blocking a proposed Treasury Dept. rule that would tighten levies and taxes on business inheritances. Time ran out for that session-ending vote that would have blocked the Treasury rule on how partial stakes in family-owned businesses are valued. The Treasury Dept. said the rule change was intended to prevent heirs from understating the fair market value of their estates in order to avoid paying taxes. Sen. Thune, a senior Finance Committee member, thinks there would be consensus support of his proposal to repeal the estate tax as part of a broad tax overhaul in the new 115th Congress.

Right now, individuals can inherit estates worth up to $5.45 million without being taxed. Estates valued over that threshold are taxed at a rate of 40 percent, under a bipartisan compromise that was included in a 2013 fiscal deal. According to Republican Congressional aides, a full repeal of the estate tax would cost more than $200 billion over 10 years. President Donald Trump and the House Republican “Better Way” agenda both support repealing the estate tax.

A Thune ally, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas, argues that the current threshold for the exemption excludes a number of family-run agricultural businesses, forcing heirs in some cases to liquidate assets to pay estate taxes. Last year, seven Democrats joined 233 House Republicans to pass Brady’s estate tax repeal bill by a 240 to 179 vote.

It is easy to see that the debate over whether to totally repeal the estate tax has become a partisan political issue. Republicans promote estate tax repeal as a way to preserve jobs and to save small businesses from going under. But Democrats mostly disagree with this idea. Democrats such as Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison argue that full repeal would mainly provide a windfall to wealthy investors. There also have been very big compliance costs levied on businesses who must pay this tax. According to the Joint Economic Committee, for every dollar of tax revenue raised from the “death tax,” a dollar is wasted in compliance costs. For example, in 2006, it was estimated that family businesses spent almost $28 billion just to comply with the law.

With the interests of agricultural businesses and companies at stake, it will be interesting to see if there will actually be enough political support in Congress to pull off this repeal.

 

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