October 18, 2004
Estate Tax: Repelling the Repeal
Martin E. Marty
November is approaching, which, in the Protestant/Evangelical half of America, is often "Stewardship Month." For those whose charities' fiscal year begins in January, it is also the month for budget-setting. As a former pastor of a congregation, I remain mindful of stewardship. As a former board member of a church-related college and employee of a faith-based, non-profit health care system, I am also mindful of the role of estate-planning, "planned giving," and the value of long-term gifts to colleges, hospitals, and social service agencies. So Sightings has me scanning the secular press for relevant material to pass on, with little need for comment in some cases.
For example, an October 7 column ("A Costly Free Lunch") by my favorite Wall Street Journal columnist -- yes, I have one! -- Albert R. Hunt, with whom I regularly disagree, spells out his viewpoint. "In 2000, individuals made $212 billion in charitable contributions. Much flowed out of generosity and genuine commitment. Some, however, was facilitated by tax planning, particularly the estate tax, where donors could provide for themselves in their lifetimes and their alma mater or charity after their death."
Now the administration wants the estate tax to be repealed, claiming that such a move would help farmers save their farms. "This may be good politics, but it's a fraud." An Iowa State University economist several years ago could not find a single true Iowa family farmer who had to sell the farm to pay estate taxes. (In fact, few Iowa farmers pay the tax at all.) Hunt cites economists who say the repeal will not affect 99 percent of the people. He disagrees; the "death tax," as would-be repealers have it, "is more than simply affirmative action for heirs of rich people." A repeal would mean the loss of $60 billion a year in revenues and it would also hurt state revenues, which piggy-back on them.
The "huge problem," however, is that "it would drain colleges, universities, hospitals, museum, and even churches [repeat: 'even churches'] of much needed funds." How much drop off is expected? The Congressional Budget Office (not "some soak-the-rich band of wealthy-hating lefties," notes Hunt) estimates that overall charitable giving would decline between 6 and 12 percent, from $13 to $25 billion a year. "Charitable bequeaths would suffer even more."
The administration's goal is to eliminate the whole estate tax program by 2010. Why didn't more colleges and hospitals fight against the tax votes of recent years? "There is a ... sinister explanation. Many of these institutions have wealthy trustees who would personally benefit from a measure that would hurt the institution they're supposed to be serving."
Forget "small businessmen and farmers" and entrepreneurs, who, it is alleged, suffer because of the estate tax. In Hunt's eyes, that claim is a "fraud" and a "sham." Join Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who have given economic reasons not to have the tax repealed. A repeal would put "$60 billion a year back in the hands of mostly wealthy Americans while further squeezing middle-class Americans and some of the institutions that bring the greatest value to our lives." Like colleges, universities, hospitals, cultural institutions, and, yes, "even churches."
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.