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Estate tax fight hinges on money, morality

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Ten years ago, repeal of the estate tax was regarded as a long shot. In his 1994 "Contract with America," Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) called only for a modest raise in the exemption.

Since then, the Republican antitax movement has joined with those morally opposed to the estate tax itself to convince many Americans that it is a problematic tax, explains Michael Graetz, a Yale Law School tax expert who has coauthored a book on the politics of the repeal drive.

The repeal campaign has had financial backing from many of what Professor Graetz calls "grass-tops supporters" - as opposed to grass-roots supporters. "Most of the money came from very ... wealthy holders of portfolio assets," he says.

Opponents of the estate tax say it is "double taxation" on income already hit by income taxation. But Graetz notes that most Americans face triple taxation - payroll taxes, income taxes, and sales taxes.

Both sides of the debate often frame their arguments in terms of morality. As Senator Kyl's website puts it: "The death tax is fundamentally unfair. It discourages hard work, entrepreneurship and savings, while rewarding consumption. It imposes tremendous planning costs on families, especially those owning small businesses and ranches."

Proponents of repeal used to list "family farms" as well. But they had great difficulty finding any farm family that had to sell its farm in order to pay the estate tax.

Opponents of repeal, on the other hand, have emphasized the loss of federal revenues from ending estate taxes. The 2001 act was passed when it looked like the federal budget faced huge surpluses in the years ahead. Since then, the budget has sunk into large deficits, making "fiscal responsibility" an argument used to support retention.

Repeal would cost roughly $1 trillion in the first 10 years of extension, 2012 to 2021 - $745 billion in lost revenues and $225 billion in increased interest payments on the national debt, notes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

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