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When corporations don't pay taxes

That Congress is more than justified in taking away some of the tax breaks granted corporations in the US - as the new $99 billion tax measure would do - is underscored by a new study prepared by Tax Analysts. The research organization finds that the actual tax rate for the nation's 514 largest corporations fell significantly in 1981. In fact, 33 firms with earnings of $100 million or more paid no taxes at all. Many of these enterprises actually claimed money from the federal government - which means that they will be able to apply the ''refund'' to future tax bills.

Take Tenneco, a major oil and shipbuilding firm. Tenneco's US earnings last year totalled over $1 billion. But thanks to tax considerations, it actually claimed over $43 million back from the government. Other firms claiming money from the Treasury included Dow Chemical and Union Pacific. And such high-earning firms as Bank of America, Xerox, Republic Steel, Georgia Pacific, Sante Fe, Southern Pacific, and Weyerhaeuser all paid no taxes in 1981.

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Each of these firms may have clear legal grounds for paying no corporate taxes - or, in special cases, even claiming refunds. And there are obvious reasons for keeping corporate taxes as low as possible - mainly to spur industrial growth. But, as corporations pay less in federal income taxes, the public's presumption is strong that individual taxpayers are forced to make up the difference. Most individuals have no loopholes.

The business world suffers morally when it is seen escaping payment of taxes. What is needed is a reformed and balanced tax policy that requires corporations to pay a fair share of federal taxes without smothering their incentive to produce.

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