Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

How the Estate Tax Helps New York

As a state senator, I represent the district on the East Side of Manhattan that has traditionally been labeled the “Silk Stocking District” -- a reference to the affluence of many of my constituents. Thus it might surprise some that I oppose federal proposals to do away with the Estate Tax, the tax that collects money on estate whose worth exceeds $2 million. Ending this tax would be very bad not just for the country as a whole, but for New York City and for my own district.

New York City is home both to some of the greatest cultural, medical and charitable institutions in the world, as well as some of these institutions’ most generous philanthropic benefactors. My district alone is home to many of these institutions, including Baruch and Hunter Colleges, Marymount Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Central Park, NYU Medical Center, Mount Sinai and Sloan-Kettering. Without the estate tax, and the effects of the tax code on the wealthiest New Yorkers, nonprofit facilities in our city will not only find governmental funding cut, but charitable donations from the wealthiest donors also.

And some of the programs that could be affected by repeal of the tax helped people amass their wealth. Martin Rothenberg, who was raised in Brooklyn and who opposes the repeal of the tax despite his fortune, likes to point out that he grew up using the city’s public library, went to school on the GI Bill, received a government fellowship, and went on to build a $30 million software company using publicly funded research and publicly educated employees. He said, "I hope the taxes on my estate will help fund the kind of programs that benefited me and others from humble backgrounds."

The "Death Tax"?

Proponents of repealing the estate tax have effectively managed to nickname a nearly 100-year-old policy. They call it the "death tax" and they say it forces people to sell their small businesses and family farms instead of being able to pass it on to their heirs. They say this costs jobs. But saying it does not make it so.

The number of small business and family farms affected is tiny—about 2 percent of all eligible estates, of which there is just 8,300 in total.

Anti-estate tax lobbyists have implemented a strategy to mislead the public on who is affected, how much is collected, and what the loss of revenue would mean. Proponents of repealing the estate tax not only mislead the public, they also purposefully ignore what the tax does. For instance, it is expected to generate nearly $1 trillion in the next decade alone—a huge sum of money that helps sustain vital programs that serve many low and moderate income Americans, and senior citizens. Repeal proponents want to remove $1 trillion from public funds with no plan or strategy for how the government can recoup that loss without significant cuts to these vital programs.

But the effect of the cuts would go beyond the $1 trillion because eliminating the estate tax would also do away with incentives in the tax code that only the wealthiest are eligible for, which encourage them to make large charitable donations for their own financial benefit.

A Decrease in Donations

These tax code incentives benefit encourage the wealthiest to give money to a nonprofit (where they can select the sort of program they are helping) instead of letting the government take the money in the form of taxes and put it into general funds.

The Congressional Budget Office said in 2004, "In essence, lowering tax rates increases the price of donations, reducing the incentive to donate." The office reported that, had the estate tax not existed in 2000, charitable giving would have been 16 to 18 percent lower that year alone.

A more recent study by the Brookings Institution projected that repeal of the estate tax would result in a $10 billion reduction in annual charitable donations in life and in bequests at death. As a result, every year, the nonprofit sector would lose resources equivalent to all the grants currently made by the largest 110 foundations in the United States.

Research confirms that the estate tax encourages many of the most wealthy to donate more than they otherwise would, since they can reduce their estate tax liability by making donations while they are alive and in bequest.

The Drive for Repeal

While so far, each attempt to completely repeal the estate tax has failed, if history has been any indicator, the most recent attempt will not be the last. A recent Bloomberg News Service article titled "Estate-Tax Repeal Keeps Charities Silent, Deferring to Donors” describes efforts to repeal the estate tax as a "dilemma facing charities, universities, museums and other organizations that rely on donations as Senate Republicans consider another vote…as early as next week."

Nearly six in ten Americans favor preserving the estate tax and the significant economic benefits it provides, yet at this moment attempts are being made in Washington and in states like Virginia to repeal the estate tax by combining the legislation that would do away with it with more popular measures that many elected officials feel compelled to vote for.

Unwilling to accept defeat, the repeal movement will continue to intensify as it has been funded by just 18 of the richest families in the country, who have already spent in excess of $200 million on political campaigns and lobbyists. These 18 families have financed an anti-estate-tax coalition whose mission is to mislead the public, and manipulate virtues like American’s entrepreneurial spirit, for their personal gain.

Support for the Tax

But many of the national’s wealthiest people, like Martin Rothenberg, support the estate tax. They have formed an organization called Responsible Wealth.

"It is a very equitable tax," declared Warren Buffet. "It's in keeping with the idea of equality of opportunity in this country – not giving incredible head starts to certain people who were very selective about the womb from which they emerged."

Buffet made these comments shortly after donating $30.7 billion to charity, and he is right (though it is important to recognize that even with the estate tax, the size of inheritance to those who descend from the richest 8,300 American families remains a rather incredible head start).

The increased concentration of wealth, and disparity between the vast majority of Americans and the very wealthiest will have dire effects on economic viability of New York and the country. It was New York's own, President Teddy Roosevelt, who introduced the estate tax, saying "Inherited economic power is as inconsistent with the ideals of this generation as inherited political power was inconsistent with the ideals of a generation which established our government."

The economic implications of permanent repeal of the estate tax are far-reaching, and potentially devastating to the health of our great nonprofit institutions, as well as the already neglected infrastructures of New York City, State, and the country as a whole.

Liz Krueger, a Democrat, represents Manhattan’s East Side in the State Senate.


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