Senate OKs $137 Billion in Corporate, Special Interest Tax Breaks
Published on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 by Knight-Ridder
Senate OKs $137 Billion in Corporate, Special Interest Tax Breaks
by Sumana Chatterjee

WASHINGTON - The Senate on Monday approved $137 billion in tax breaks for corporations and special interests over 10 years, including a $10 billion buyout for tobacco farmers. The giveaways were needed to win votes for otherwise unpopular legislation intended primarily to end a trade fight over illegal U.S. subsidies to export industries.

The measure passed 69-17. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Oct. 7 by 280-141. President Bush is expected to sign the bill before Election Day.

Supporters hailed its passage as critical to creating jobs while opponents called the measure a massive corporate giveaway. It includes tax breaks for Alaskan whalers, natural gas companies, the timber industry, Hollywood filmmakers and cruise-ship companies.

To win support from tobacco-state lawmakers, tax writers included a $10 billion industry-financed buyout for tobacco farmers. That provision drew heated bipartisan criticism from Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who'd sought to make the buyout contingent upon Federal Drug Administration regulation of tobacco products. They lost.

"This bill allows big tobacco companies to market cigarettes to your children," Kennedy said.

The legislation's basic purpose is to end increasingly high tariffs imposed on 1,600 American products. The European Union had complained that certain export subsidies constituted unfair trade practices. The World Trade Organization agreed and imposed tariffs, which started at 5 percent and are now up to 12 percent.

In response, the bill would repeal $49.2 billion in export subsidies, a move unpopular with the subsidies' beneficiaries. To build support for the bill, its sponsors lowered the tax rate for domestic manufacturers from 35 percent to 32 percent, at a cost to the Treasury of $76.5 billion over 10 years.

To spread the benefits more widely, tax writers expanded the definition of manufacturing to include construction companies, engineering and architectural firms, film and music companies, and the oil and gas industry.

NASCAR track owners won a break worth $101 million for grandstand expenses.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the bill would help his constituents, who've been hit hard by the manufacturing slump. "This bill goes a long way to helping us," he said.

The tax breaks drew criticism from fiscal conservatives.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the measure the "worst example of the influence of the special interests I have ever seen."

Despite the $137 billion in tax breaks, the bill officially won't add to the record federal deficit. It includes various revenue-raising provisions such as customs fee extensions and closes alleged tax "loopholes" worth $81.7 billion over 10 years that together will pay for the bill, making it "revenue neutral."

One example: The bill tightens rules that give multinational companies incentives to incorporate overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

"We're closing loopholes on tax scams to shelter (multinational companies') money offshore," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. She called the loophole the "Bermuda Triangle" of the tax code.

To encourage Hollywood moguls to make fewer films in inexpensive foreign locales, lawmakers included a $336 million tax break over five years to allow studios to expense up to $15 million in the first year of production of small and independent films made in the United States. It would give them more tax breaks if production occurs in low-income communities in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri or Tennessee.

In a provision proposed by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Bob Graham, D-Fla., the measure would give cruise-ship companies a $28 million tax break by allowing them to delay filing certain expenses. Murkowski, who's in a tight race to return to the Senate, also won a provision to permit the deduction of charitable contributions that support native Alaskan whaling.

Archery-gear makers, fishing tackle-box makers and foreign gamblers all would benefit, too. The bill would give a $27 million tax break to encourage foreigners to gamble at U.S. horse and dog racetracks and $9 million in tax breaks to U.S. makers of bows and arrows.

One provision would reduce excise taxes from 10 percent to 3 percent on fishing tackle boxes. A major beneficiary is Plano Molding Co. of Illinois, which is headquartered in Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district. The cost to taxpayers is $11 million, according to the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the bill would also provide these tax breaks:

-$231 million to finance $2 billion in bonds for four malls, including the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

-$495 million to allow shipbuilders such as Northrop Grumman to use a different accounting technique; sponsors: Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

-$995 million for aircraft leasing and shipping income exemptions.

-$247 million over five years to help producers of small jets and planes, 60 percent of which are built in Kansas. Beneficiaries include Lear Jet and Cessna; sponsors: Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, both Kansas Republicans.

-$27 million to farmers who replace livestock because of drought, flood or other weather-related conditions; sponsors: Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Craig Thomas, R-Wyo.

-$234 million for the distilled spirits, wine and beer industry.

-$150 million for an Alaska natural gas pipeline.

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