How would you like to help stake me to a fine dinner at Bern's? To go skiing in Colorado? Or snorkeling at St. Thomas?
I'd draw the line on the vacations. Others don't.
And you do help to pay for them. According to Jonathan Warner, who chairs the Florida Bar's Tax Section, an important maxim in tax law is that "suffering is not a prerequisite to doing things."
Washington forgives billions of dollars a year in tax deductions for "business" meals without regard to whether they were hot dogs eaten on the run at the airport or steaks and Dom Perignon relished at leisure. The same goes for business travel. Vail is as good as Hoboken when it comes to travel, lodging and meals for a convention or seminar. These tax expenditures, as economists call them, come out of the public purse just as food stamps do. The difference is that food stamps are not legal tender at yacht clubs or ski lifts.
Congress did cut the business meal deduction, in 1986, to 80 percent. President Clinton's deficit reduction plan calls on Congress to cut it again, to 50 percent, yielding an estimated $16.3-billion over five years. So far, so good. An advertising blitz by the restaurant lobby failed to sway the Senate Finance Committee last week, but trouble could still occur on the Senate floor.
The National Restaurant Association recruited a Maryland waitress and put her on television in four states with senators on the committee to complain that "I might not have a job much longer." What Clinton proposes, she said, "would throw 165,000 people out of work."
No doubt the dear lady believes it, but the propaganda she was repeating was pure poppycock. The restaurant lobby's job loss estimate, according to a devastating analysis by the New York Times, assumes unsupportably that for every dollar more in taxes that business people would have to pay, they would spend one dollar less on restaurant meals. The lobby's own figures, according to the New York Times, show that the change would cost the typical business customer only $23.88 a year for dinner and $11.40 for lunch, hardly enough to change anyone's habits. Washington lobbyists, of course, might be pinched a lot more. Perhaps _ dare we hope? _ Congress would eat and drink a little less well.
If Clinton and Congress really cared to be bold, they'd cut the business meal deduction to a flat per diem based, say, on the cost of breakfast at Shoney's, lunch at McDonald's and dinner _ let's be generous _ at the Olive Garden or Red Lobster. People who simply must live better should not expect help from taxpayers whose own idea of a big night out is, by necessity, rarely fancier than the Pizza Hut.
Speaking of people who ought to pay for their own brings us to the subject of the Florida Bar. Its collective conscience is under challenge. David M. Richardson, a University of Florida law professor and former chair of the Bar's Tax Section, told the Bar's Board of Governors several months ago that, except for rare and justifiable circumstances, none of its continuing legal education (CLE) seminars should be held out of state or out of the country. He mentioned forthcoming seminars at Lake Tahoe, in the Virgin Islands and at Park City, Utah. "Earn up to 20 hours CLE while you ski!," said one ad.
Richardson's objections are twofold: Because Florida lawyers are required to take these brushup courses, none of them should be priced so high that young lawyers can't afford them. And the Bar should not be encouraging its members to vacation at taxpayer expense.
Richardson's remarks were received about as graciously as Florida legislators treat the idea that they should give up free meals and liquor from lobbyists. One lawyer complained that to reign in the profitable CLE courses might cause a general dues increase. Another saw it as a question of family togetherness: "the opportunity for lawyers to take their spouses and their children to interesting places." Warner says it was "ludicrous and outrageous" for Richardson to stress the tax angle. The Tax Section, he says, has never advertised its seminars as tax-deductible. "We don't even say the word."
As if the lawyers who would attend tax seminars didn't already know. I raised this point to Warner Friday. His response: "It is very, very presumptuous on your part to suggest that they would take a deduction."
"I don't know what each individual does but I can tell you the Tax Section does not promote this on the basis of tax deductions," Warner insisted. ". . . . I personally have not participated in the ski trips but I probably would treat it as a personal vacation and not deduct it."
Probably not even the IRS really knows how many lawyers do deduct these junkets.
Don't look for the Bar to put a stop to them. Richardson's complaint was assigned to a committee for study _ the same committee, as he notes, "that has been sponsoring these things for some time."
Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.