In 1969, disclosure of the fact that 155 persons with income above $200,000, including 21 millionaires, paid no federal income tax provided the leverage for passage of a minimum tax on both individuals and corporations.
The tax represented an affirmation of the concept that no one with real economic income should be able to escape altogether responsibility to pay taxes.
In the intervening years, the tax has been both diluted and made more complex. Corporations that are subject to the provisions pay an "add on" minimum tax in addition to regular corporate income taxes, while individuals can be subject to either a minimum tax in addition to their normal tax liability or to an "alternative" minimum tax.
Revenues from this tax have declined to a relatively small $1.4 billion and, in some cases, the tax has ended up penalizing not just wealthy companies using the tax code to avoid liability, but beleaguered firms that have little or no profits.
In addition, the steady decline of tax reformers in Congress, along with the views of the current administration, would suggest that an end to the minimum tax was in sight.
Instead, the past few weeks have produced an extraordinary shift in tax policy.
The administration is now pressing for a new version of the corporate minimum tax designed to raise $2.3 billion in 1983 and $4.6 billion in 1984. The Republican chairman of the Finance Committee, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), is willing to go a step farther and is actively exploring a much broader version that would raise $10 billion or more annually from corporations and affluent individuals.
"The feeling is that everybody ought to have a chance to contribute to economic recovery," Dole said recently.
Neither Dole nor the administration has disclosed specific details of their plans, but both would use "alternative" minimum taxes requiring the taxpayer to make two computations.
Hypothetically, this might work as follows:
Exxulf, on oil company, has $3 million in gross income. To calculate its regular tax, it would deduct intangible drilling costs of, in this case, $1 million; $500,000 for percentage depletion and $500,000 for accelerated depreciation, leaving taxable income of $1 million. At 46 percent, it would owe $460,000. From this it would subtract investment tax credits of, in this example, $100,000, leaving a net tax owed of $360,000.
To calculate Exxulf's minimum alternative tax, it would take the $1 million in taxable income, add back the deductions to get back to $3 million and take a $50,000 exemption (if that is the level set by the law) to reduce the minimum tax base to $2,950,000. It would then multiply $2.95 million by 15 percent (the rate most consider likely to be set in law) and determine its minimum tax of $442.500. The administration, and probably Dole, would not allow use of investment tax credits to reduce liablity.
In this case, Exxulf would pay the larger of the two amounts, the minimum tax. In effect, the minimum tax would mean the firm paid $82,500 more than it would have under normal rates.
The example, however, presumes that a number of key political decisions have been made: 1) that the corporate exemption level is set at $50,000, 2) that the minimum tax rate will be 15 percent and 3) that the "add backs" used to calculate the minimum tax include the benefits of the new depreciation schedule, percentage depletion and intangible drilling costs.
In an effort to keep the number of persons and corporations subject to the tax low, Dole is expected to set the exemption level at a relatively high figure. At the same time the rate may be raised in order to get significant revenues.
The key issue, however, is the selection of which tax "preferences" will be used in the calculation of the minimum tax. Inclusion of a preference will function to penalize some of the users. Banks, for example, can be expected to fight to the bitter end efforts to include interest on loans used to buy tax exempt bonds. Truck company owners would similarly oppose inclusion of motor carrier operating subsidies.
The concept received widely mixed reactions among tax specialists. One business lobbyist with close ties to the administration described it as "bananas," while another with very similar allegiances contended that "if done right" it could function to limit excessive use of tax preferences and limit criticism of the GOP on grounds that the party has been too pro-business.
Emil M. Sunley Jr., former deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy who is now with Deloitte Haskins & Sells, was critical, contending that the minimum tax says its "all right to use a little bit of tax preferences, but if you use too much, you get your hand slapped."
The man who fathered the original minimum tax in 1969, Stanley Surrey, former assistant secretary for tax policy and now a Harvard law professor, wryly suggested that with the 1981 tax bill the administration had "given away the store" and now it wants "to get part of the store back again" through the minimum tax.