Holiday Tradition of Democrats’ End-of-Year Surrender Foiled by House GOP

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Just as President Obama caved at the end of last year to demands that he extend the Bush tax cuts for even the richest Americans, it looked like he was ready to end this year by caving on the debate over payroll tax cuts. Then, strangely, House Republicans refused to accept the surrender.

President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress made a huge compromise before they even began negotiating with Republicans. Economists agree that the government measures most likely to boost job creation are spending measures (including things like food stamps, infrastructure, hiring teachers) but President Obama decided to focus on a tax cut in order to appeal to Republicans.

And he did not choose the tax cut most likely to boost consumer spending by putting money in the hands of low- and middle-income people. That would be the Making Work Pay Credit, which was allowed to expire at the end of 2010. Instead, he proposed extending and expanding the payroll tax cut that was enacted for 2010, and which was originally proposed by Republicans.

So President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress proposed that this year’s payroll tax cut be extended into next year and expanded. They insisted that Congress not attach controversial policies like hurrying approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline extension, and they proposed that the cost be offset by taxing millionaires. The President and Democratic leaders eventually surrendered on all of this.

Citizens for Tax Justice estimated that the millionaire surcharge would only affect one-fifth of one percent of taxpayers and that those affected would see their overall taxes go up by an average 2.1 percent. But Congressional Republicans objected that this would burden “job creators,” so the Democrats agreed to drop the millionaire surcharge.

But Republicans in the Senate were still not happy. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill to extend the existing payroll tax cut and offset the costs with the types of cuts in public services that Republicans usually support. Strangely, a majority of Republicans voted against this bill, too.

Even the number two Republican in the Senate, Jon Kyl, opposed McConnell’s bill and said he would support extending the payroll tax cut only if it was paired with another extension of the Bush tax cuts. Our figures comparing different types of tax cuts illustrated how this was essentially a demand that the payroll tax cut can only be enacted along with much, much larger tax cuts for the rich (like the Bush tax cuts).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would not approve must-pass spending measures before the end of the year without extending the payroll tax cut through 2012. But Senator Reid backed down and made a deal with Senator McConnell. The payroll tax cut would be extended for just the first two months of next year, and it would not be expanded. It would be attached to a provision requiring a quicker approval of the controversial oil pipeline project. And, of course, there would be no tax on millionaires. This bill passed the Senate with 89 of the chamber’s 100 members voting in favor.

President Obama endorsed the deal. It would at least get Congress and the country through the holidays, after which lawmakers could take up this debate again and hash out whether the payroll tax cut should be extended for the rest of the year.

Then something strange happened. Republicans in House refused to approve the Senate bill. They voted along party lines to appoint a conference committee iron out differences between the Senate-passed bill and a bill passed earlier by the House. But the Senate had already left town.

The bill passed by the Republican majority in the House (H.R. 3630) would extend the existing payroll tax cut for a year, but because House Republicans consider this an enormous concession, the bill includes many policy provisions championed by conservatives. It would offset the cost of the payroll tax cut with cuts in public services, which is the opposite of what the economy needs right now. It includes cuts and restrictions on unemployment insurance, delays on environmental rules and, of course, a faster approval for the oil pipeline project.

It’s awfully tempting to tune out of national politics entirely right now and enjoy some eggnog, except for one thing: Millions of Americans are struggling to find decent work and the House of Representatives has done everything imaginable to block anything that might change that. If lumps of coal were environmentally friendly, we’d encourage everyone to send them by the truckload to the House members blocking progress.

The Top Five Tax Myths to Watch Out for this Election Season

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As the presidential campaigns rev up, taxes are emerging as the defining issue of the election. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation and myths about taxes are spreading as candidates and commentators look to push their different economic agendas.

To start the election season off, here is a breakdown of the five biggest tax whoppers being told by the candidates and commentators alike.

1) Myth: 47 Percent of Americans Do Not Pay Taxes

Fact: All Americans Pay Taxes

Pundits and politicians will continue to rile up audiences this election season by claiming that half of Americans in the U.S. do not pay any taxes. This talking point is used to deflect questions about why the rich should pay their fair share.

The basis of this claim is data showing that 47 percent of Americans did not owe federal income taxes in 2009, which the recession was at it’s peak. The claim ignores the much more regressive federal payroll taxes or state and local sales, income, and property taxes that all Americans pay. The reality is that three-quarters of American households actually pay more in payroll taxes than federal income taxes.

Adding to this, the very reason many low income Americans do not pay federal income taxes is because they benefit from highly effective tax credits like the earned income tax credit (EITC), which incentivize work while providing much needed support to working low and middle class family budgets.

2) Myth: The American People and Corporations Pay High Taxes

Fact: The US Has the Third Lowest Taxes of Any Developed Country in the World

Total US taxes are actually at the lowest level they’ve been since 1958. The US has the third lowest level of total taxes of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, with the exception of only Chile and Mexico. President Obama, who is often falsely accused of raising taxes, actually cut taxes for 98 percent of the country on top of temporarily extending the entirety of the Bush tax cuts.

A related claim is that the US has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world. This is misleading because it’s based on the on-paper (statutory) corporate rate rather than the actual (effective) rate that corporations pay. Because of the plethora of corporate tax breaks and loopholes, the US actually has the second lowest coporate taxes as a share of GDP in the OECD. In fact, 30 major corporations, including Verizon, Boeing and General Electric, paid nothing in corporate taxes over the last 3 years.  Rather than cutting corporate taxes, the sensible solution is to pass revenue-positive corporate tax reform.

3) Myth: Cutting Taxes Creates Jobs and Raises Revenue

Fact: Tax Cuts Reduce Revenue And Are Not Associated with Economic Growth

Since the rise of supply-side economics, tax cuts for the rich have been regarded as a magic elixir that could unleash economic growth, while simultaneously increasing government revenue.

The reality is that the tax cuts that have been tried for over 30 years have proven to be a stunning failure in all regards. In fact, history has shown that the tax rate on the wealthy simply has nothing to do with economic growth. Just consider the strong growth that occurred after President Clinton increased taxes versus the dismal growth following the Bush tax cuts.

Not surprisingly, tax cuts have been definitely proven to reduce revenue. Even President Bush’s own Treasury Department concluded that tax cuts do not create enough economic growth to to come close to offsetting their costs or raising revenue. The Bush tax cuts cost $2.5 trillion in their first decade and the Reagan tax cuts cost $582 billion.

4) Myth: The US tax system is very progressive because wealthy individuals already pay a disproportionate amount of taxes.

Fact: At a Time of Growing Income Inequality, the US Tax System is Basically Flat.

Conservative commentators and politicians claim that it would be unfair to raise taxes on wealthy individuals because they already pay a disproportionate amount of taxes, usually citing the fact that the top one percent of income earners pay 38 percent of federal income taxes. Once again, such claims ignore the fact that the federal income tax is just one of many taxes that individuals pay.

When you take into account all of the taxes that individuals pay, the truth is that our tax system is relatively flat. The top one percent of income earners receives 20.3 percent of total income while paying 21.5 percent of total taxes and the lowest 20 percent of income earners receive 3.5 percent of total income while still paying out two percent of total taxes.

In other words, wealthy individuals pay a high percentage of taxes because they earn a highly disproportionate amount of income. This is, of course, a consequence of growing income inequality in the United States, which is at a level not seen since before the Great Depression

5) Myth : The “Fair Tax” or a flat tax would be more “fair”

Fact: The “Fair Tax” or a Flat Tax Would Make Our Tax System Even More Regressive

Whether it’s Steve Forbes promoting his flat tax proposal in 1996 and 2000 or Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich in the 2012 presidential race today, the idea to sweep away our current tax system and replace it with a single rate, flat income or national sales tax (called the “Fair Tax”) has become a perennial campaign issue for Republican presidential candidates.

The simplicity of these proposals has much appeal for many Americans, who believe they would make filing taxes less complex and, at the same time, stop wealthy individuals from being able to game the tax system.

A deeper look, however, reveals that both the “fair” and flat tax are very regressive compared to our current system. One recent analysis of a typical flat tax proposal from last year shows that it would result in an average tax increase of $2,887 for the bottom 95 percent of Americans, while those in the top one percent would receive an average tax cut of over $209,562. Furthermore, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s analysis of the Fair Tax points out the under this system, the sales tax rate would have to be set at a politically and administratively unfeasible rate of at least 45 percent, and, the result would be the bottom 80 percent of American’s paying an average of 51 percent more in taxes compared to our current system.

It’s also important to note that “complexity in the tax code,” which a flat tax system purports to fix, is not caused by our progressive rate structure; rather, it’s the multitude of loopholes and tax breaks, all of which could easily be eliminated while keeping a progressive tax rate structure in place. 

Naughty States, Nice States: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy’s 2011 List

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Michigan’s legislature and Governor Snyder top the naughty list by giving away more than $1.6 billion in tax cuts for business and paying for it with tax increases on low-and middle-income working and retired families.

Florida continued to dole out more corporate pork this year, including a property tax break that happens to benefit huge commercial land owners, like Disney World and Florida Power and Light, and other corporations (that also happen to be major donors to the state’s Republican governor and legislative majority party).

Minnesota’s legislature missed an opportunity to do the right thing when it rejected a tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents. The plan was proposed by Governor Dayton and supported by 63 percent of Minnesotans over the alternative, which was cuts to spending on education, health care and other vital public services.

Anti-tax activists in Missouri were hard at work again. This year they were collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would eliminate the state’s personal income tax and replace it with a broadened and increased sales tax.


Connecticut’s Governor Malloy and the legislature adopted a $1.4 billion tax increase that improved tax fairness in the state and protected public investments like education and health care.  Most notably, the state added an Earned Income Tax Credit, a significant tax break for low-income working families.

District of Columbia lawmakers greatly reduced the ability of corporations to dodge their fair share of taxes by adopting combined reporting (which makes it harder to hide profits in other states) and a higher corporate minimum tax. The Council also temporarily increased taxes for individuals making more than $350,000 a year and limited itemized deductions, which are most often taken by high income filers.

Hawaii lawmakers also limited upside-down tax giveaways (itemized deductions) for their state’s richest residents and passed other tax changes to raise much needed revenue.

A Little Bit Naughty and Nice

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed his campaign vow not to raise taxes and supported a tax increase on residents earning more than $2 million a year.   The plan, passed by the legislature, also included a tax break for those with income under $300,000.

However, New York lawmakers passed the governor’s cap on property taxes this summer, which is predictably creating crises and forcing dramatic cuts in local education, medical, and public safety services.

Illinois raised significant revenue earlier in the year through temporary personal and corporate income tax rate increases, all designed to stave off harsh spending cuts, but then turned right around and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to Sears and CME, allegedly to keep them in the state.

States Losing $10 Billion in Gas Taxes Every Year; Solutions Available for Courageous Lawmakers

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Our roads, bridges, and transit systems are in decline, and unless lawmakers are cured of their anti-tax phobia, the “fix” could come from education cuts in some states and even more deficit spending at the federal level.

It’s against this backdrop that our friends at ITEP released a first of its kind report on gas taxes last week, titled “Building a Better Gas Tax.”  In the report, ITEP shows that state governments are losing $10 billion every year because of their failure to plan for predictable increases in transportation construction costs. Meantime, much of the federal government’s contribution to states’ transport budgets is being paid for with borrowed money because our national gas tax is also stagnant, costing us $23 billion annually. 

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that this problem might be addressed responsibly, at least in some states.  Most notable are Maryland, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where influential lawmakers are planning to push for long overdue gas tax increases when legislative sessions start next month.

By contrast, Oklahoma and Virginia are each led by governors who have announced their intention to cut education funding in order to pay for road and bridge repairs.

ITEP’s report recommends that lawmakers follow the path being considered in Maryland and other states: an immediate gas tax increase, coupled with reform to ensure that the tax can hold up over time alongside rising asphalt and construction costs.  ITEP’s report also urges that states enact low-income relief to offset gas tax payments made by those least able to afford the tax.

The report has already been greeted warmly by the transportation policy community, and has received significant press coverage (and praise from editorial boards) in a number of states where gas taxes are sure to be most relevant in the months ahead, including Maryland, Michigan, and Virginia.

We’ll keep you updated on all of these debates as they develop, but in the meantime we encourage you to check out the report at and see how your state compares.

Photo of Gas Station via Future Atlas Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0


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UPDATE: Candidate Mitt Romney told MSNBC on December 22 that he does not intend to release his tax returns, even if he becomes his party’s nominee. Watch CTJ’s Rebecca Wilkins explain to ABC News Brian Ross what Romney’s tax returns would show about his offshore investments and “carried interest” income. ABC video at this link.

End the Loophole Allowing Romney and other Fund Managers to have “Carried Interest” Taxed as “Capital Gains”

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s personal wealth, estimated at $190 to $250 million, has been in the news a lot lately, including the sweet retirement deal he negotiated with Bain Capital, the private equity firm he used to head. The stories confirm CTJ director Bob McIntyre’s comments to Time Magazine that Romney’s multi-million dollar income is likely taxed at the special low 15 percent rate imposed on dividends and long-term capital gains.

This makes Romney a good poster child for the “Buffett Rule,” the principle that millionaires should not pay lower effective tax rates than middle-income people. One step towards implementing the Buffet Rule is to close the loophole that allows “carried interest” (the fund managers’ share of the deal they get as compensation) to be taxed at the 15 percent rate even though it is not truly capital gain.

Much of Romney’s income that is taxed at that super-low rate is actually compensation in the form of a “carried interest” in the private equity deals of Bain Capital. While CEO’s, actors, and athletes with multi-million dollar salaries, bonuses, or stock options pay income tax rates of 35 percent (and payroll taxes) on their compensation, managers of private equity firms, hedge funds, and other investment funds pay only 15 percent income tax (and no payroll tax) on their share of the funds’ profits that they get in exchange for their management services. Even some managers who benefit from the low rate admit it’s not justified.

Since this loophole benefits those who make millions, hundreds of millions and sometimes over a billion dollars in a single year, it is truly a case of the richest one percent being subsidized by the other 99 percent who pay higher taxes or get less in services to pay for this tax break.

Various proposals have been offered to close this loophole and, in the last Congress, one of those measures passed the House (three times!) but didn’t make it through the Senate. Republicans and many Democrats in the Senate claimed that the loophole somehow helps encourage investment in poor neighborhoods, helps minorities, small businesses and even cancer patients.

The truth is that it does not encourage any type of investment in any part of the country because it does not benefit the people putting up money for investment. It merely allows those who manage this money to pretend that they have invested their own cash and thus receive the capital gains tax break that is ostensibly in place to encourage investment.

Now that this loophole has the face of a very wealthy presidential candidate on it, perhaps the American public will start to notice and demand that it be eliminated. If you believe the tax code shouldn’t favor the richest 1 percent over the 99 percent, here’s a place to start: Close the Romney Loophole.

Putting a Cap on Gingrich’s Tax Policy Hot Air

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Despite receiving increased attention after becoming the new GOP presidential frontrunner, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich continued his blunder-filled forays into tax policy at the ABC News Iowa Republican primary debate last Saturday.

The most outstanding of the Gingrich tax policy foibles in the debate was a flat-out lie about his past support of a cap-and-trade system to deal with climate change.

Responding to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s charge that he supported cap-and-trade, Gingrich replied “I oppose cap-and-trade” and went on to say that he helped “defeat it in the Senate.” In reality however, Gingrich has said in the past that he would “strongly support” cap-and-trade and has repeatedly backed similar efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Gingrich’s attempt to hide his past position on this issue highlights how anti-tax absolutists have pushed the entire Republican presidential field away from any policy that could increase revenue, even if it would help prevent a climate crisis. Economists agree that a cap and trade system, which would raise revenue, has the same effect as a direct tax on carbon-producing activities. Of course, Gingrich has tried to rewrite history before, and has been called out by CTJ’s director Bob McIntyre.

Gingrich also went on the offensive against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, criticizing Romney’s proposal to make capital gains tax-free only for taxpayers with income under $200,000 whereas Gingrich would make them tax-free for all taxpayers.  

What Gingrich failed to mention is how he would offset the $1.3 trillion revenue loss that would result or that the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers alone would receive three-quarters of the benefits. A fairer and more sustainable tax policy would actually be to end the special low income tax rate for capital gains so that they are treated like any other form of income.

As the new GOP frontrunner, Gingrich will quickly learn that people are paying close attention to his tax policy pronouncements, and CTJ will provide the missing facts whenever needed.

Cuomo Reverses Course on Millionaires’ Tax

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After long opposing the extension of a tax on millionaires supported by 72 percent of New Yorkers, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo partially reversed himself and proposed a plan that would raise more revenue from the very wealthy and make the state’s tax system less regressive.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the New York Senate and General Assembly approved Cuomo’s plan to raise taxes on joint filers making more than $2 million, while cutting them for those making under $300,000.

The move by Cuomo represented a stunning reversal of his pledge to oppose any tax increases, which he backed up in March by effectively killing the extension of New York’s popular millionaire’s surcharge.

For his part, Cuomo explains his reversal by noting that the state faces a $3.5 billion deficit and that as a result “there is not an intelligent or productive way to close the current gap without generating revenue.” The new tax plan will raise $1.9 billion, of which $1.5 billion is slated to go directly to deficit reduction.

Cuomo’s decision also comes after months of increasing pressure to extend the temporary millionaires’ tax from the New York Democratic Party establishment, Occupy Wall Street protestors, and overwhelming majorities of New Yorkers generally.

Compared to the tax rates that would be in effect if New York simply allowed the millionaires’ surcharge to expire, the tax deal reduces taxes for joint filers making under $300,000, keeps them the same for joint filers making between $300,000 and $2 million dollars, and increases the rate by almost 2 percent on joint filers making more than $2 million dollars. However, supporters of the millionaires’ surcharge point out that a straight extension of that provision would have raised more than twice as much revenue from the wealthy.

In any case, Cuomo’s tax plan should be applauded and will definitely benefit a wide-swath of New Yorkers. We only wish that anti-tax New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would follow suit and reinstate a millionaires’ tax in his state.

Photo of Governor Andrew Cuomo via Gov Andrew Cuomo Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Senator Kyl Supports Middle-Class Tax Cuts Only if Paired with Far Larger Tax Cut for the Rich

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The graph below compares the impacts of the Democrats’ proposed payroll tax holiday with a tax policy that is more progressive (reviving the Making Work Pay Credit) and a policy that is far more regressive (the Bush tax cuts, which are already in effect through 2012). Senator Jon Kyl, the second highest ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, now says he would agree to extend the payroll tax cut only if Democrats agreed to extend the far more regressive policy, the Bush tax cuts.

These figures disturbed us because even the Democrats’ proposal is not really all that progressive. If the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax paid by workers is reduced to 3.1 percent as Democratic leaders propose, the richest fifth of taxpayers will receive $83 billion in 2012 while the poorest fifth of taxpayers will receive just $7 billion.

Apparently that’s not regressive enough for Jon Kyl. The blog Think Progress notes that on Monday, Senator Kyl said on the Senate floor that when the payroll tax cut was enacted for one year at the end of 2010, that “was part of an overall agreement in which we said we will extend all of the existing tax rates — the so-called Bush tax cuts… we would extend this temporary tax holiday from the payroll tax cut, we would extend all of those. And I supported that… Now if we can do that again, I’m all for it. I’ll support the extension of the payroll tax holiday.” 

The graph shows that the Bush tax cuts in 2012 will provide the richest fifth of taxpayers with $231 billion and will provide the poorest fifth of taxpayers with just $3 billion. For more, read our short report on these figures.

The Washington Post’s Faulty “Fact Checker”

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It would require a full-time staff person to respond to all the inaccuracies we regularly see in Washington Post’s “The Fact Checker” column by Glenn Kessler, but an episode from this week really stands out.

Kessler attempts to pick at a segment of President Obama’s speech on Tuesday in Kansas, during which he said,

“I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory. Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country…”

Kessler admits that “it is correct that most of the benefits of the tax cuts flowed to the wealthy” but then writes that Obama “should not suggest that the Bush tax cuts were only aimed at the wealthy, since that is not correct.”

In truth, the Bush tax cuts were “aimed at the wealthy,” and a few bits and scraps were dropped to low- and middle-income people to distract inattentive people like Glenn Kessler from this fact. We estimated that by 2010, when the Bush tax cuts were fully phased in, about 52 percent of the benefits went to the richest five percent of taxpayers and just under 75 percent of the benefits went to the richest fifth of taxpayers. Less than 13 percent of the benefits went to the bottom three fifths of taxpayers. Can anyone seriously doubt that the Bush tax cuts were “aimed at the wealthy”?

It’s true that they are slightly less aimed at the wealthy today because the part of the Bush tax cuts that repealed the estate tax was partially extended, rather than fully extended, in the December 2010 deal that extended all the tax cuts for two years. We projected the distribution of the tax cuts in the event that they’re extended again in 2013 (including the estate tax cut currently in place) and the figures are not much different from our 2010 figure.

Kessler also complains that, “The Bush tax cuts have been roundly criticized for being inefficient and poorly designed, but it is a stretch for Obama to blame slow job growth on the tax cuts. There are many factors that affect job growth…”

This actually seems like a misinterpretation of what President Obama said. The President seems to be making the point that the sole Republican response to economic downturns is to cut taxes, particularly tax cuts for the wealthy investor class, and this doesn’t get the job done. Research backs this up. Economic growth was lower after these types of tax cuts were enacted in the Reagan and George W. Bush years than after the tax hikes enacted during the Clinton years.

This is not to say that President Obama or Democratic leaders have done a stellar job on economic policy. Kessler rightly points out that President Obama’s tax plan, which was filibustered by the Republican minority in the Senate last year, would have extended most of the Bush tax cuts even while allowing those going exclusively to the very rich to expire. Still, this doesn’t change the fact that the Bush tax cuts were “aimed at the wealthy” and failed to help our economy in any of the ways that their proponents promised they would.

Corporate Tax Dodging in the Fifty States, 2008-2010

December 7, 2011 12:21 AM | | Bookmark and Share

NEW REPORT: 265 Major, Profitable U.S. Corporations’ Tax Avoidance Costs States $42 Billion Over Three Years

“Corporate Tax Dodging in the Fifty States, 2008-2010” follows up on “Corporate Taxpayers and Corporate Tax Dodgers, 2008-2010” which was published in November by Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). The two groups released their first major study on the federal income taxes that large, profitable American corporations pay on their U.S. pretax profits in 1984.

“Our report shows these 265 corporations raked in a combined $1.33 trillion in profits in the last three years, and far too many have managed to shelter half or more of their profits from state taxes,” said Matthew Gardner, Executive Director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the report’s co-author. “They’re so busy avoiding taxes, it’s no wonder they’re not creating any new jobs.”

68 of the 265 Fortune 500 companies profiled paid no state corporate income tax in at least one of the last three years and 20 of them averaged a tax rate of zero or less during the 2008-2010 period.

Among the 20 corporations paying zero or less in state corporate income taxes over the three year period are: Utility provider Pepco Holdings (DC); pharmaceutical giant Baxter International (IL); chemical maker DuPont (DE); fast food behemoth Yum Brands (KY); high tech manufacturer Intel (CA).

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