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Study: Companies paying less in taxes

America's largest and most profitable companies paid less in corporate income taxes in the last three years, even as they increased profits, according to a study released Wednesday.

Companies have always used writeoffs, depreciation, deductions and loopholes to lower their taxes, but the study, by Citizens for Tax Justice and its affiliate, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, suggested that tax breaks and subsidies enacted during the Bush administration have accelerated the decline in tax payments.

The study also cited the proliferation of abusive tax shelters and increasingly aggressive corporate lobbying as fueling the decline in tax payments by corporations.

The groups that did the study are nonprofit research and advocacy groups that have been supported in part by labor unions, and contend the tax system favors wealthy corporations and individuals.

The study, Corporate Income Taxes in the Bush Years, surveyed public filings by 275 of the nation's largest and most profitable companies, based on revenue from the Fortune 500 list of 2004. The 275 companies reported pretax profits from operations in the United States of $1.1-trillion from 2001 through 2003, the study said, yet reported to the IRS and paid taxes on half that amount.

Robert S. McIntyre, the lead author of the study, wrote, "The fact that America's companies were allowed to report less than half of their actual U.S. profits to the IRS, while ordinary wage earners have to report every penny of their earnings, has to undermine public respect for the tax system."

The 275 companies surveyed include nearly all of the 2004 Fortune 500 companies that were profitable from 2001 through 2003. The list excluded those that reported losses in any year, including General Motors and Ford; certain companies whose finances were considered too opaque to decipher; and about 25 companies to maintain a balance.

The study cited, among other things, tax breaks enacted in 2002 and 2003 as prompting the decline in corporate payments. Such tax breaks, as used by the 275 companies, totaled more than $175-billion over the last three years, including $71-billion last year, up from $43.4-billion in 2001. That compares, roughly, with $98-billion in tax breaks for the top 250 profitable companies over 1996 through 1998, according to a similar study by the Citizens for Tax Justice in 2000.

Not all experts agreed with the study's findings. William W. Beach, a tax policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington, said that even though the study surveyed the top 275 companies, he did not find it "typical of corporate America," adding that smaller and midsize businesses were "paying a lot in taxes."

According to the study, some 28 corporations paid no taxes from 2001 to 2003, despite having profits in the period of nearly $45-billion.

Industry sectors that paid the lowest taxes or no taxes included aerospace and defense, telecommunications, transportation, and industrial and farm equipment.

The 2000 study found that from 1996 to 1998, 11 of the 250 largest and most profitable companies paid no taxes, despite all reporting profits. The earlier study found that the 250 companies showed a 23.5 percent increase in pretax profit, while the tax payments rose 7.7 percent.

The current study seemed to echo government data. Commerce Department figures showed pretax corporate profit rose 26 percent from 2001 to 2003 but that corporate tax payments fell 21 percent.

Corporate taxes as a share of the national economy are at their lowest sustained level since World War II, the study said, and financed only 6 percent of government expenses in the last two fiscal years.

The current study found that nearly one in three companies, or 82, of the 275 examined paid no federal income tax in at least one year from 2001 to 2003, the period covered by the study. In the period, the 82 companies had pretax profit of $102-billion.

Last year, 46 of the 275 companies surveyed paid no federal income tax, up from 42 companies in 2002 and 33 in 2001, according to the study. Overall, the number of companies that paid no taxes increased 40 percent over the period.

The current study attributed lower corporate payments in part to legislation supported by President Bush and enacted by Congress in 2002 that increased accelerated depreciation, an accounting move that allows profitable companies to write off capital investments and claim tax deferrals.

Accelerated depreciation was intended in part to spur capital investment, but the study argued that it had done the opposite. Capital investment by corporations dropped 12 percent in 2002 and 3 percent in 2003, the years when Congress enacted the new accelerated depreciation rules.

As a result, McIntyre concluded, "the $175-billion in revenues lost to the 2002- and 2003-enacted tax breaks appears to have been exceedingly poorly spent."

Beach, of Heritage, disagreed with that finding, saying that rates of capital investment were at historic highs. "We're seeing an investment surge that's so strong that you have to go back to the 1960s before you see a comparable one," he said.