Many Firms Didn't Pay Taxes

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By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

About two-thirds of corporations operating in the United States did not pay taxes annually from 1998 to 2005, according to a new report scheduled to be made public today from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In 2005, after collectively making $2.5 trillion in sales, corporations gave a variety of reasons on their tax returns to account for the absence of taxable revenue. The most frequently listed included the cost of producing their goods, salary expenses and interest payments on their debt, the report said.

The GAO did not analyze whether the firms had profits that should have been taxed.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) called the findings "a shocking indictment of the current tax system."

"It's shameful that so many corporations make big profits and pay nothing to support our country," he said. "The tax system that allows this wholesale tax avoidance is an embarrassment and unfair to hardworking Americans who pay their fair share of taxes. We need to plug these tax loopholes and put these corporations back on the tax rolls."

Eric Toder, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said the vast majority of corporations are small businesses and start-ups that have adopted a corporate structure that allows them to lower their tax bills.

"I'm not trying to imply that there aren't tax-compliance issues among small corporations," he said. "But when you are talking about businesses that size, I would suspect the norm would be to not pay taxes, and there's nothing nefarious about that." Toder had not yet seen the GAO study.

A greater proportion of large corporations pay taxes, according to the GAO. In 2005, about 28 percent of large corporations paid no taxes. Of the 1.3 million corporations included in the study, 998 were categorized as "large."

Dorgan and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) requested the report out of concern that some corporations were using "transfer pricing" to reduce their tax bills. The practice allows multi-national companies to transfer goods and assets between internal divisions so they can record income in a jurisdiction with low tax rates.

The GAO said data on transfer pricing were scarce. Instead, it compared the percentages of foreign- and U.S.-controlled corporations that are paying taxes.

In general, the GAO found that slightly more foreign firms paid no taxes. From 1998 to 2005, 68 percent of foreign-controlled corporations sent nothing to the Internal Revenue Service, compared with 66 percent of U.S. companies. The report noted in an opening paragraph, however, that the GAO did not study whether the foreign companies were using transfer pricing.

Still, Levin said: "This report makes clear that too many corporations are using tax trickery to send their profits overseas and avoid paying their fair share in the United States."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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