The chart above probably answers the question asked by the title of this post. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
If there was an "endangered species list" for tax policies, the federal estate tax would have been on it for the past fifteen years, starting when the anti-tax gang cleverly re-labelled it the "death tax." The gradual repeal legislation (which would be phased in between 2001 and 2010) passed at the behest of President Bush in 2001 didn't help matters, of course. But for those of us who think the estate tax plays a vital rule in preventing the concentration of economic (and, as important, political) power in the hands of a few elites, it was heartening to see the Congressional tax writing committees taken over by Democrats, and then to see the White House occupied by Barack Obama. The policy question, it seemed to most sensible folks, was how much (if any) of the Bush tax cuts that had already taken effect would be allowed to remain. The cuts that had not yet taken effect when Obama took office, of course, would never take place.
So how did we get here, with a Democratic Senate approving more estate tax cuts?
It was bad enough when Obama, even as a presidential candidate, signaled that he thought the best "reform" option for the estate tax was to make permanent most of the Bush administration's cuts in the estate tax rates. As a December 2008 Citizens for Tax Justice analysis of Obama's plan noted,
President-elect Barack Obama has proposed a change that would prevent the estate tax from disappearing in 2010, but which would also unnecessarily cut the estate tax below the level itwould reach in years after 2010 if Congress simply does nothing.Put another way, Obama's first estate-tax-related act as President was not to reject the Bush administration's estate tax cuts, but to allow even more of them to take effect at the beginning of 2009. Even estate tax proponents whose reform ambitions were limited to "first, do no harm" were disappointed by this stance.
And now, at at time when the federal government faces deficits unrivalled since World War 2, Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln is actively arguing that Obama's cuts aren't enough. The Lincoln proposal would drop the top estate tax rate to 35 percent and exempt the first $10 million of an estate's value from tax.
For Lincoln to view this as a priority, she has to somehow think that the 2009 rules Obama has allowed to take effect-- which exempt the first $7 million of a married couple's property from tax and then apply a rate structure with a top rate of 45 percent-- are just too onerous.
One has to ask the question: who are these guys with estates worth over $7 million that she's so worried about?
A look at the history of Arkansas estate tax collections (that's the chart at the beginning of this post, reprinted below) gives a hint. For much of the last 20 years, Arkansas estate tax collections have been pretty flat, hovering between $10 and $30 million a year. But in fiscal 1996, the state collected just under $120 million in estate taxes. While the state is (understandably) not telling what the source of the single-year bump was, it's generally understood to have been largely due to the death of Wal-Mart co-founder "Bud" Walton in 1995.
Given this history, and given the recent track record of the Walton family in pushing for estate tax repeal, Lincoln's opposition to the estate tax becomes more understandable-- but still remains profoundly disappointing.
Does Lincoln really have such a chronic case of "tin ear" that she's willing to make a high-profile stand for further estate tax cuts in the era of Madoff/AIG bonuses/etc? Apparently so.