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A time for charity

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Surely it is not too much to ask, especially at Christmas time, that the richest people in Arkansas share a bit of their good fortune with the poorest. Luke wrote many years ago, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required … ” What we have in mind is considerably less than “much” — only that some of Arkansas’s wealthiest citizens step forward and publicly call for retention of the estate tax, as wealthy Americans in other parts of the country have done (Bill Gates, Warren Buffet et al). The Arkansas legislature would take note, don’t worry. No matter how inattentive it may be to other groups, the legislature listens when big money talks. As the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families point out, the estate tax is among the fairest taxes that a state can levy. It is paid only by those who are most able to pay. Taxes based on ability to pay are called progressive taxes. The Arkansas tax system is largely regressive, meaning the people at the bottom pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the people at the top. The poorest 20 percent of Arkansans pay 12 cents in taxes out of every dollar of income. The richest one percent pay 6 cents of every dollar. The Arkansas tax system will be even more unfair to the poor if the estate tax is lost, and the tax will be lost unless the 2005 legislature saves it. President Bush has persuaded Congress to phase out the federal estate tax by 2010. (Said to be dyslexic, the president apparently misread Luke’s injunction as “For unto whomsoever much is given, to him shall be given much more.”) Because Arkansas’s estate tax is tied to the federal tax, the Arkansas tax will end in 2005 as part of the federal phaseout — unless Arkansas decides to “decouple” from the federal tax and retain an independent state income tax, as other states have done. Eighteen states now have independent estate taxes. The estate tax is collected only on estates worth more than $1.5 million — or, in the case of married couples, only on estates with a total value of more than $3 million. In Arkansas, only 0.9 percent of the population is affected by the estate tax. These are not the owners of mom-and-pop businesses or family farms. Despite tales told to the contrary, no farm has ever been sold to satisfy the estate tax. Nationally, fewer than one in 20 farmers leaves a taxable estate. For those who do, the typical tax payment is around $5,000. Loss of the Arkansas estate tax will mean the loss of $20 million a year in badly needed state revenue, money that goes into vital programs for low- and middle-income Arkansans, such as public schools and Medicaid. That money could be saved if the rich give their blessing.

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