The Senate Finance Committee tax bill approved yesterday generally would raise corporate income tax burdens less than the House version passed last year, but it also includes some changes in individual income taxes that would have a major impact on some industries.
Precise estimates of the corporate tax boost were not available, although it apparently would exceed $100 billion during the next five years. The House bill would raise corporate taxes an estimated $150 billion during a similar period.
The total yield of the corporate income tax would go up in both cases, even though the top corporate rate would fall from 46 percent to 36 percent under the House bill and to 33 percent under the Senate committee version.
The added revenue from corporations would be used to offset some of the revenue lost from a large reduction in personal income tax rates, including a drop in the top rate from 50 percent to 27 percent. The committee described the overall bill as "revenue neutral" -- that is, it would raise as much revenue as current law but from somewhat different sources.
However, some business lobbyists, hoping to get the bill killed or significantly altered when it reaches the Senate floor in early June, are planning to challenge that claim and argue that it would lose significant revenue compared with current law, a private tax expert said.
Among the more important changes proposed in corporate taxes by the Senate committee bill are repeal of the 10 percent investment tax credit (ITC) on purchases of business equipment and a tough new corporate minimum tax. Repeal of the ITC and a similar corporate minimum tax are also in the House bill.
A significant number of provisions in the House version that would hit specific industries -- including oil and gas, timber and financial institutions -- are not part of the Senate committee bill. The failure to include these provisions, many of which were strongly resisted by the industries in question, is the principal reason that the Senate committee version provides a smaller increase in the overall corporate tax burden.
With less corporate revenue available to offset reductions in personal tax rates, the Senate committee chose to try to raise large amounts of additional revenue by eliminating the distinction between ordinary personal income, which would be taxed at the new top rate of 27 percent, and long-term capital gains income, which now carries a top rate of 20 percent.
The committee also proposed a severe limit on the deduction of losses from certain types of tax-shelter investments, such as in real estate, which industry officials said would have a devastating impact on their operations.
Some analysts said the increase in capital gains rates could make it harder for new companies to raise money to begin operations. In such cases, investors usually are prepared to accept no return on their money for several years while the company is starting up, knowing that they could make a very large gain on their stock if the new venture becomes profitable.
Because of the way in which the committee has proposed phasing out items such as personal exemptions and the standard deduction for taxpayers with incomes generally above $100,000, the effective top personal tax rate would be substantially higher than 30 percent for some taxpayers in that group. It was not clear yesterday whether the top rate on capital gains would be fixed at 27 percent or, in some cases, also be effectively higher.
In any event, the elimination of special treatment for capital gains is the most powerful revenue raiser in the entire committee bill, producing an estimated $220 billion over the next five years if the gains were to be taxed at current rates for ordinary income. That is a figure that some opponents of the bill likely will challenge.
The Senate committee chose to increase capital gains taxes by repealing the provision of current law that excludes 60 percent of long-term capital gains from a taxpayer's gross income. The House bill seeks only to increase the top capital gains rate from 20 percent to 22 percent. One tax analyst suggested yesterday that this difference in approach could cause problems if the full Senate accepted the committee approach and the House and Senate bills go to a conference to resolve any differences.
The 60 percent exclusion for capital gains, and the smaller exclusions that were in effect in earlier years, generally were justified on the grounds that when a taxpayer figures a gain, no adjustment for inflation is allowed. Taxpayers, therefore, can end up paying taxes even if they have received no real gain. The tax-revision proposal offered by President Reagan last year would have allowed taxpayers after 1990 to exclude half their gains or to increase their original cost to take inflation into account.
Some economists, such as Martin S. Feldstein of Harvard University, former chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, have sharply criticized increasing taxes on income from capital investments, including repeal of the investment tax credit. Higher taxes on such income would mean less investment and a somewhat less productive economy in the future, Feldstein and others have said.
The Senate bill would allow businesses to write off investments in equipment somewhat faster, on average, than under current law, but taxes on income produced by equipment would be increased by repeal of the ITC. The opposite was true for buildings and other structures. Depreciation periods were lengthened significantly, but since the ITC has not been available for structures, its repeal had no effect.
The House bill, on the other hand, both repealed the ITC and lengthened depreciation periods for many types of equipment and structures.
Some of the depreciation changes in the Senate bill would actually have little, if any, impact on companies that find themselves subject to the new corporate minimum tax, which carries a 20 percent rate. There is a minimum tax in current law, but it is in the form of an "add-on" tax with a 15 percent rate.
The committee's bill would make the minimum tax an "alternative" tax rather than an "add-on." In the latter case, certain tax-preference items -- such as the difference between accelerated and straight-line depreciation, and the benefits of lower rates on capital gains -- are added together and taxed at the 15 percent rate, but with an allowance for regular tax paid.
Under the proposed "alternative" tax, a corporation would figure its tax liability in the normal way. Then it would make an alternative calculation by adding to its taxable income those preference items to come up with an expanded income figure. The 20 percent tax would be levied on that income figure. The corporation would then pay either its regular tax or the alternative minimum tax, whichever was higher.