ONE OF THE chief arguments of those seeking permanent repeal of the estate tax is that it cruelly penalizes farmers and owners of small businesses whose heirs are forced to sell off their holdings to pay the tax. "In order to make sure our farms stay within our farming families, we need to get rid of the death tax once and for all," President Bush proclaimed in a speech last month to the Future Farmers of America.
This assertion, though, is more convenient myth than fact -- something that senators might consider when they're called on, perhaps as soon as this week, to vote on abolishing the tax. A new study by the Congressional Budget Office examined estate tax returns filed by farmers and owners of small businesses in 1999 and 2000. The numbers that owed estate tax, the CBO found, were paltry, and the number without enough cash on hand to pay the bill even punier: In 2000, for example, just 1,659 farm estates had taxes due, of which 138 didn't report enough liquid assets to cover their tax liability.
But at that time the amount of money that could be passed on to heirs free of taxes was just half what it is now. With the current exemption level of $1.5 million, the CBO analysis found, only 300 farm estates in 2000 would have owed any tax at all -- and of those, just 27 would have a tax bill in excess of their liquid assets. At the even more generous exemption scheduled to take effect in 2009, $3.5 million, the ranks of those potentially hit hard by the tax would have dwindled even further; 65 farm estates would owe taxes and 13 would not have enough cash to cover the bill.
In other words, the image of the grieving heir packing up his hoe as he trudges away from the family farm is just that -- a powerful image but not an accurate one. Over the years, the discussion of the estate tax hasn't exactly been noted for its intellectual rigor. But members of Congress debating the issue now ought to look at the facts assembled by the CBO -- not the misinformation peddled by those maneuvering to make repeal permanent.