Viewpoint -- Living It Up With Loopholes

Dec. 21, 2004
Business leaders want reform, but too many of them benefit from the wacky tax system they want to dismantle.

We here at IndustryWeek hear a lot of complaints from business leaders about things they feel are unfair. Runaway litigation. Convoluted and burdensome taxes. Unnecessary regulation. Unfair trade practices. And on and on. They never fail to point out that the health of this country is tied to their companies' well being. They are major employers, pay substantial taxes, make products necessary for our lifestyles, frequently contribute to worthwhile causes and supply societal benefits such as health insurance and training that are frequently provided for free by the governments of other countries. Most of the time, when one sits back and examines the evidence, these executives have a point. But sometimes, they talk out of both sides of their mouths while shooting themselves in the feet. One would think with all of the corporate scandals that have taken place over the past two years, business leaders would be more sensitive to acts that are legal on paper but stink like last week's sushi. Evidence points to the opposite, however. This past week, for instance, a U.S. Senate committee began hearings on one of the most ridiculous tax loopholes I've ever heard of. It goes like this: Companies can lease public assets, such as water systems or transportation systems in order to a) give needy local governments cash payments for the lease and b) decrease their tax bill by writing off depreciation of the leased assets. Sounds like another scheme to benefit big business. But wait, aren't cash-strapped cities benefiting too? Not always. Some of the companies are leasing assets overseas and still getting the tax write-off. So, not only are they avoiding paying a portion of U.S. taxes -- which, of course, we are always in need of -- but overseas cities are getting the lease payments. Both manufacturers and non-manufacturers are doing or have done this. In a case cited by the The New York Times, Bank of America paid $25 million to lease Canada's air traffic control system and use its depreciation as a way to reduce its taxes. Some would say this an abusive tax shelter, but a Bank of America spokeswoman says it's legal under IRS code. A General Accounting Office report released at the hearing reported that abusive tax shelters cost the United States $85 billion a year. Another loopy loophole was chronicled in the Oct. 13 issue of Time. According to reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, such non-manufacturing companies as Marriott International Inc. and Rex Stores Corp. have turned themselves into manufacturers by setting up operations in the synthetic fuel business. That is, they've purchased operations that take coal, do something unspecified with it, and turn it into a "synthetic fuel"; even though, according to the reports, it still looks like coal. These companies and others are receiving billions in tax breaks under a program that gives such credits to synthetic fuel manufacturers; although despite dogged reporting, Barlett and Steele were turned away when they asked these companies to demonstrate their manufacturing processes and the virtues of the products, which should - theoretically -- reduce U.S. dependence of foreign fuel. Is this legal? Like the leasing program, yes. Is it right? I and others doubt it. And here's the part I don't get: Companies involved in questionable activities such as these will defend their legality to the hilt all the while not realizing that the American public frankly doesn't give a hoot what they think. If companies truly want antiquated regulations and lopsided tax codes to be fixed, then they can't be standing at the trough sucking up the fat that these push to the top. Sarbanes-Oxley wasn't a slam-dunk because Congress had a sudden urge to reign in the excesses of capitalism; their constituents demanded it. And if tax and regulatory reform is going to take place that benefits business, then business leaders need to realize that they must convince the public that their companies are worthy of receiving it. And here's a hint: When you want someone on your side, it's never a good idea to take advantage of them and not pay them their fair share. The public is not benefiting enough from these and other loopholes when compared with how the companies are making out. It's very easy to slip into the thinking that all big business is bad and in bed with politicians when stories such as these surface. Why aren't business leaders practicing what they preach instead of getting away with whatever they can, whenever then can? Tonya Vinas is IndustryWeek's managing editor.

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