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September 17, 2008

Senate breaks impasse on tax relief

Compromise bill could head to floor this week

Jim Abrams
Associated Press
September 17, 2008

WASHINGTON – Senate leaders said Tuesday that they had broken a months-long impasse over a tax break package that would bring billions of dollars in relief to individual and business taxpayers, developers of clean energy resources and people threatened by the alternative minimum tax.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and his Republican counterpart on the panel, Charles Grassley of Iowa, said the package could reach the Senate floor this week. The tax package is one of the last major issues that Congress must address in the last weeks before its scheduled adjournment for the year.

The agreement includes some $17 billion in clean energy tax incentives and provides for a fix, at an estimated cost of $64 billion over 10 years, to shield more than 20 million taxpayers in danger of getting hit by the alternative minimum tax.

The AMT was enacted in 1969 to catch a small number of very rich tax dodgers, but was never adjusted for inflation and hits more upper-middle-level income people every year unless Congress acts to protect them.

The Baucus-Grassley measure would also extend numerous targeted tax breaks that expired at the end of last year or are set to die out at the end of this year. Those include tax breaks for college tuition, state and local sales taxes and research and development for U.S. businesses.

The compromise had the blessing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Reid and the Democrats have made several attempts this year to advance a tax relief package, but have been thwarted by Republicans objecting to Democratic proposals to offset the costs of the relief.

Complicating the issue is that House Democrats have insisted that they will reject any legislation to renew expiring tax bills that adds to the deficit.

Baucus and Grassley said the clean energy tax incentives would be paid for with such measures as freezing the tax deduction for the domestic manufacturing activities of American oil and gas companies and tightening the rules by which oil and gas companies pay taxes on income earned overseas.

They said the extension of expiring family and business tax cuts, which include expansion of the child tax credit and legislation providing parity for mental health treatment, would be partially offset by closing loopholes by which hedge fund managers use offshore corporations to defer taxes on compensation received for investment services.

The AMT fix would not be paid for.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who led negotiations on the energy tax credits with Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said the tax credits could mean tens of thousands of jobs.

"This is a major step forward to help get us off our dependence on oil and shift over to renewable technologies like solar, wind and geothermal. That is absolutely the direction we need to go in," Cantwell said.

The bill extends tax credits for renewable energy such as solar power, biomass, hydro and geothermal, and offers up to $760 million in tax credits for plug-in vehicles.

The agreement also carries two provisions important to Washington state, Cantwell said.

One of them is the two-year extension of the state sales tax deduction for federal taxpayers. Since 2004, residents of Washington state and seven other states that don't have a state income tax have been allowed to claim a deduction on their annual filing of a 1040.

Also in the compromise bill is an extension of payments to school districts in areas of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and other states with large amounts of federal forests, which traditionally relied on federal timber harvests to supplement their education budgets.

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