The Hill

Tax Reform Should Level The Playing Field For Small Business

The Hill — Monday, April 18, 2011

By Kelly Conklin

When the New York Times broke the story recently of GE's massive tax avoidance despite raking in $5.1 billion in U.S. profits and $14.2 billion worldwide, it caused quite a stir. And as working Americans and small business owners prepare to pony up their taxes this month, the outrage only deepens.

A little-covered angle of this story is what it means for small businesses like mine when large corporate actors use their resources to avoid paying taxes instead of contributing a portion of their profits to fund the infrastructure, education, and other programs that are the foundation of business success. When GE doesn't pay, small businesses like mine — who can't afford to hire a batallion of tax attorneys and former IRS agents — end up paying for them.

As a small business owner I'm used to contending with powerful corporate interests. Purchasing health insurance, we're dealing with big insurance companies. Handling credit card transactions, we're paying exorbitant rates to Wall Street's finest. And of course, small businesses have to hold our own with big corporate competitors — Wal-Mart, Home Depot, — in the marketplace. Every day, we're reminded what it's like to have no bargaining power, and to face a stacked deck.

Now, these same corporate players that routinely pick our pockets are asking us to foot the bill for their permanent tax holiday. Enough is enough; if you want to fly the American flag outside your corporate headquarters, you should be paying your way.

GE may be emblematic of this problem, but it hasn't acted alone in perpetrating massive tax avoidance. Bank of America and Citigroup made billions in profits in 2009 but paid no corporate income taxes. Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, paid a paltry 1.1 percent in corporate income taxes on its $2.3 billion in profits in 2008 as it helped crash the world economy.

How do these companies manage to dodge their taxes so successfully when the corporate income tax rate is, nominally, 35 percent?

One way is to set up shell companies in countries with lax tax rules, shifting profits into tax havens and thereby avoiding U.S. taxes. According to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office, health insurer Aetna had eight subsidiaries in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands; Bank of America had 115 (including 59 in the Cayman Islands alone); Citigroup had 427; JPMorgan Chase had 50; UnitedHealth Group had 11; and Wells Fargo had 18. And that's just looking at the health insurance and banking industries.

Overall, research suggests we're throwing away $100 billion a year due to offshore tax abuses alone, not to mention other loopholes. Corporate tax contributions have dropped sharply in the last 50 years: in 1955, under President Eisenhower, corporate taxes made up 27 percent of federal revenues; today, they make up less than 9 percent. No wonder we face a revenue crisis.

So far, the talk about closing loopholes has included the puzzling statement that reform should be "revenue neutral." This just doesn't make sense. We've just seen that corporations are paying far below their fair share through aggressive tax avoidance. Why would we accept the resulting level of revenue, a historic low, as the "right" amount? It amounts to a massive handout to big business that our small businesses and communities can't afford.

If we do talk about getting more in taxes from GE and friends, their CEOs will undoubtedly whine that they won't be able to compete with companies in other countries with lower tax rates. The trouble is, it's the U.S. that has effective rates far below average. Look at these effective tax rates from 2009: Mitsubishi? 40 percent. Siemens? 31 percent. Phillips? 26 percent? And GE? A whopping 7 percent.

Before we talk about cutting Medicare and Medicaid, let's talk about getting corporations to pay their share — and in so doing, look out for small business owners like me who will never set foot on, much less set up a subsidiary in, the Cayman Islands.

Kelly Conklin is the owner of Foley-Waite Associates, a custom woodworking business in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He serves on the steering committee of the Main Street Alliance, a national small business network.

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