A study of taxes paid by 250 major, profitable corporations during the first three years of the Reagan administration found that more than half of them paid no federal income taxes for at least one year.
In addition, in some cases companies profited by selling tax benefits they were unable to use or collected tax refunds from previous years, according to the analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice, a coalition of consumer organizations and labor unions.
The study examined companies chosen from the ranks of the Fortune 500 manufacturing firms and the magazine's listings of the top firms in other industries such as utilities and banking. It looked only at profitable companies.
Of that group, 128 had at least one year in the period from 1981 through 1983 when they paid no taxes despite profits totaling $56.7 billion, the study said. Seventeen escaped from taxes in all three years despite total profits over that period of $14.9 billion, according to the report.
The "largest single blow to the corporate tax came in 1981 with passage of the Reagan tax bill," the report asserts. The biggest corporate beneficiary of the tax changes, which included accelerated depreciation and other tax benefits for business investments, was General Electric Co., according to the report.
"GE earned $6.5 billion in pretax domestic profits over three years, paid not one cent in federal income taxes and claimed tax refunds of $283 million in taxes paid before Reagan took office," the report said. GE officials could not be reached for comment on the report, which was issued late yesterday.
"Americans are wondering why the federal government is incurring the largest deficits in history even while they are paying the highest taxes ever," said Robert S. McIntyre, who wrote the report. One answer is "the demise of the corporate income tax," he said, noting that it accounted for only 6.2 percent of federal revenue in 1983.
Despite a statutory corporate tax rate of 46 percent on income over $100,000, corporations paid taxes at a far lower rate, the study found. The average for the companies surveyed was 14.6 percent in 1983. That same year, 130 of the companies surveyed paid rates lower than the average effective tax rate on individuals of 12 percent.
If the 250 companies had actually paid taxes at a 46 percent rate in 1983, "they would have paid an additional $31.8 billion in taxes in 1983 alone," the study concluded.
Companies that the study identified as paying no federal taxes during the three years, in addition to GE, included Boeing Co., Dow Chemical Co., Columbia Gas System, Transamerica Corp., General Dynamics, U.S. Home, Greyhound Corp., Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., Singer Co., Centex Corp., Champion Internaional Corp., Rio Grande Industries, American Financial Corp., First Executive Corp., Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Corp.
On an industry basis, the highest average tax rates were paid by companies in the tobacco, leisure and personal care and textile industries, the study said.