Friday, June 23, 2006

EDITORIAL >> Aiming at Pryor

Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor finds himself in the crosshairs in the epochal battle over the estate tax and facing perhaps the biggest test of his young career. Depending upon his vote, in two years he can have some of the most determined money and power in the country arrayed against him.

Pryor jumped into the middle of the partisan standoff over filibustering judicial nominees last year and came out of it all right, a hero some would say.

Let us hope that he can navigate these waters with equal aplomb and hold on to his principles, too. All of us — the state and the country — have an even larger stake than he in what he does.

Two weeks ago, Pryor refused to vote to end debate on the estate tax, which blocked a final vote on repeal.

With a solid majority in both houses and the support of a few Democrats who had been targeted by the billionaire lobbies — notably Blanche Lincoln — the Republicans had the votes to pass the bill and end the 90-year-old tax on rich estates in 2010.

Pryor thought there might be some people who were inconvenienced by the estate tax, but he worried about adding a trillion dollars to the national debt in the next decade, which would be the principal effect of ending the tax on giant inheritances.

This week, Republicans changed their strategy. Needing three votes for cloture on debate in the Senate, they decided not to completely repeal the tax but to almost repeal it. Previously, they had insisted that not one heir of a huge estate — not Paris Hilton, not the richest Walton, Mars, Buffett or Gates — should ever have to owe a penny of tax on inheritances, even on the untaxed profits of stocks and other capital assets.

The House of Represen-tatives rushed through a bill Thursday that would raise the amount of estates exempt from taxation from the current $2 million ($4 million for a couple) to $5 million for an individual and $10 million for couples. Some increase in the exemption is justifiable. The bill also slashes the tax rate for big estates.

The effect would be that the national debt between 2011 and 2021 would not grow $1 trillion but only $760 billion, counting the expanded accumulated interest on the debt. That is supposed to make us feel better?

But here is where they get Pryor and perhaps also Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Oregon’s two Democratic senators, all of whom voted for fiscal sanity two weeks ago. The House included in the estate tax bill a provision slashing the corporate tax rate on profits from the sale of timber from 35 percent to about 14 percent.

The timber industry wants the tax break, and Pryor and the other timber-state senators had sponsored legislation to do that. That is smart politics in a state where Weyerhaeuser, Georgia Pacific, International Paper Co., Anthony Products and Deltic Timber are political and economic heavy hitters. Of course, the timber tax break would add still another $900 million to the deficits over the first three years.

So what does Pryor do when the Senate brings up the bill, sometime before the Fourth of July, and the cloture motion is made?

Take the hosannas from the timber giants and the rich folks’ lobby that has been targeting him and Sen. Lincoln and hand our children and us a $760 billion debt?

Or vote again for fiscal sanity? That course will bring him some ugly consequences in the 2008 election when they are passing out campaign checks but very little praise because only a few people will understand what he did and the courage that it took to do it.