Published on Thursday, June 1, 2006 by the Portland Press Herald (Maine)
Estate Tax Repeal An Unfair Act
by Richard Rockefeller
Once again the question of repealing the estate tax has come before the U.S. Senate. The House has already approved a permanent repeal, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has promised a vote in June in the upper house.
Approval would abolish our nation's only tax on great accumulations of wealth.
The timing of this vote couldn't be more bizarre. Our nation is at war and faces a multitrillion-dollar national debt for decades to come. We are rebuilding our Gulf Coast after one of the worst natural disasters in modern memory. At the same time, our country is experiencing unprecedented levels of wealth inequality.
In this context, it is particularly unseemly and wrong to abolish the estate tax.
As a member of a family that has been associated with generations of wealth, I feel obligated to speak out against the repeal of the estate tax. While our family would benefit financially from the elimination of the tax, I believe its abolition would steer our country in the wrong direction.
The estate tax raises substantial revenue from those most able to pay, including my immediate and extended families. It provides a tremendous incentive for wealthy individuals to give to charity, including many of the foundations that serve our communities in Maine.
Finally, the estate tax encourages dispersion, rather than a build-up, of concentrated wealth and power. Such accumulations of wealth pose a basic threat to our democratic traditions.
The proponents of repeal have spent millions of dollars to promote several myths about who pays the tax and how it is the death knell of the family farmer and the small-business owner. Investigative reporting and Congress's own research services have shown that these arguments are without merit. The real backers of the move to eliminate the estate tax, according to a recent study, include 18 of our country's wealthiest families, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a campaign to abolish the tax. None of them lives in Maine.
(Editor's note: The Blethen family, owners of this newspaper's parent company, is among the 18 families cited in this study.)
Both Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have repeatedly voted for estate tax repeal, a vote that puts them clearly out of step with the majority of citizens in our state who, polls show, favor reforming and preserving the estate tax. It is time for them to publicly account for their vote.
At a time of war, when many Mainers have made enormous sacrifices through their service in the military or state National Guard units, how do we justify abolishing a tax solely paid by multimillionaires and billionaires? Doesn't this represent an embarrassing inequality of sacrifice?
How can we replace the $1 trillion in revenue that will be lost in the 10 years after complete repeal? Will Congress propose specific spending cuts, or raise taxes in other areas? What are some specific proposals?
How many people in the state of Maine will pay the estate tax in 2006? If we responsibly reform the tax, raising the amount of wealth exempted to $3.5 million for an individual and $7 million for a couple, how many Mainers will then pay the tax?
If the estate tax is a threat to family farmers or small-business owners in Maine, can anyone provide an example of a small farmer or business in Maine that has been put out of business because of the estate tax?
Research indicates that today fewer than one-third of 1 percent of estates will pay an estate tax, essentially one out of 370. In 2006, the tax will be paid exclusively by multimillionaires or billionaires, those with wealth over $2 million.
By 2009, when the amount of wealth exempted rises to $3.5 million for an individual and $7 million for a couple, only a couple dozen of the wealthiest families in Maine will owe the tax.
Whatever reforms are put forward, my family will pay the federal estate tax and give substantial money to charity in our Maine communities as well. But we don't resent it, nor do we feel it is an unfair tax. It is the price we pay to live in an orderly, civilized and well-functioning state and society.
Richard Rockefeller (e-mail: Rrockef1@maine.rr.com) is a physician who lives in Falmouth Foreside.
© 2006 The Portland Press Herald