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Taxing the Top: Congress Rethinks the Estate Tax

November 30, 2009

PORTLAND, Ore. - It's a tax that doesn't even affect most Oregonians, but it will soon be the subject of a heated debate in Congress. The federal estate tax expires at the end of this year.

Only about one percent of Americans are wealthy enough for their estates to be taxed when they die, but some of the super-rich are lobbying to eliminate it. Such groups as United for a Fair Economy want to keep the estate tax, and even expand it. According to UFE Responsible Wealth Director Mike Lapham, the tax averages 17 percent of a multi-million dollar estate. He believes paying it is the right thing to do.

"Keeping 83 cents on your dollar, being able to pass that on to the next generation or to charity, doesn't seem like a terribly bad deal. That 17 percent, to me, is a fair amount to pay back to a society that, really, created the opportunity to build your wealth in the first place."

Right now, a married couple can pass on $7 million to their heirs before paying any estate tax. Opponents of the tax say it penalizes the families of successful people, but UFE's view is that reducing or eliminating the tax would ensure that the rich keep getting richer, at a time when the government cannot afford to lose a source of income.

There are proposals in Congress to expand the estate tax, and others that would end it - and both sides cite fairness as their reason. Some say it's unfair to single out the heirs of rich people; Lapham counters that the tax is inherently fair, helping to strengthen democracy by reducing the concentration of wealth at the "very top."

"We don't really want to live in a society where, once you have wealth, you pass it on from generation to generation, like we've seen in some other countries ruled by dynastic wealth being passed on that way."

Lapham says small business owners and farmers are already exempt from the tax. His group supports a plan by Washington Congressman Jim McDermott, that would tax estates of more than $2 million per individual or $4 million per couple. Lapham says it would raise more revenue than any of the other proposals.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR