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Wealthy activists working to save estate tax

A group of more than 400 - including 23 Floridians - say repealing the tax would be a "terrible mistake.''

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001

WASHINGTON -- If enthusiasm for the estate tax is a sign of guilt among wealthy Americans -- as some commentators say -- then Florida's rich people seem to be less guilt-ridden than some.

Of the more than 400 wealthy persons who had joined a campaign against the proposed abolition of the inheritance tax by Tuesday evening, just 23 of them make their homes in Florida, a state with a healthy proportion of rich people. Many more of those who have enlisted in the so-called Responsible Wealth campaign are from higher-tax states, such as New York and California.

Although Floridians may be less interested, the pro-estate tax campaign led by billionaire investors Warren Buffett and Bill Gates' father appears to be gaining momentum, creating a political obstacle for President Bush's effort to abolish the levy.

Abolition of the estate tax, which is levied against the richest 2 percent of all estates, would cost the government an estimated $292-billion over the next 10 years. Bush, whose home state of Texas also seemed to be underrepresented among the pro-estate tax wealth, has proposed to abolish it as part of his legislative plan to trim taxes for all Americans.

The opposition to repeal had just more than 100 wealthy supporters last week when it purchased an advertisement in the New York Times declaring that repeal of the tax "would be a terrible mistake." Since then, more than 300 other people have joined the campaign sponsored by a public interest group known as United for a Fair Economy. Their names are available on the group's Web site,

Like most of the group's newest supporters, Irwin E. Jones, retired vice president of Mellon Bank who lives in Sarasota, says he volunteered to add his name to the list after reading the New York Times ad last Sunday. He said he did so because he believes the estate tax helps reduce the disparity between rich and poor and encourages wealthy people to give to charities.

"I'm concerned about having a society of inherited wealth," Jones said Tuesday. "If the burden of taxation is not borne by the wealthy, it's going to be borne by the middle- and low-income people."

"A better, more comfortable seat at the opera is a nice thing to have, but it is not an important social issue," added Sidney Axinn, a retired Temple University professor from Sarasota, who, along with his wife, June, joined the pro-tax crusade. He said he agrees with John Stuart Mill's admonition that a leisure class is "a great social evil."

In Washington, meanwhile, Republican lobbyists who have been working for many years to win the abolition of what they prefer to call the "death tax" are mighty unhappy about this unexpected groundswell against it among wealthy taxpayers. The National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, both groups that advocate estate tax abolition, are mounting a counterattack.

The senior vice president of the business federation, Dan Danner, notes there would be no estate tax if President Clinton had not vetoed a bill passed by Congress late last year to abolish it.

"I hope Congress and the Bush administration stand by the full repeal that was overwhelmingly approved just a few months ago," Danner said. "There's absolutely no good reason to retreat now."

The business federation plans to send letters to each of the people who have joined the pro-estate tax campaign, challenging them to sign over their estates to the U.S. Treasury when they die if they think the tax is unfair. But the business officials acknowledge they do not expect anyone to take that step.

Advocates for repeal argue that the estate tax often forces the heirs of family farmers and owners of small businesses to sell the enterprise in order to pay the estate taxes. In addition, they say that charitable giving is motivated by good will, not by a desire to avoid paying the estate tax.

Opponents of the estate tax also contend that the prosperity of last decade has created what the Financial Times described as "the new guilt culture" among some newly wealthy people. The newspaper says these guilt-ridden folks spend the first half of their lives aggressively amassing a large amount of wealth and the second half "repudiating or ignoring their own shark-like behavior" by giving the money away to charity.

Asked if they are motivated by guilt, Emily T. Hartmeyer of Altamonte Springs, who has joined the pro-estate tax movement along with her husband, William, replied: "We feel it is not fair for us to have so much when other people go hungry. If that's guilt, then that's what we have."

In addition to Jones, the Axinns and the Hartmeyers, the other Floridians whose names are listed on the Web site are Henri and Rhoda Bertuch of Boca Raton; James Colen of Miami Beach; Judith Barnet of Sanibel; Stella Staszyn of Holiday; Lawrence S. Phillips of Boca Raton; Martin E. Basson of Coral Springs; Jerry and Joel Hamovit of Longboat Key; Bertha Charkow of Tamarac; Linda P. and William F. Glaser of Naples; David O. Leiwant of Coral Gables, Paul Robel of Gainesville; Elliot M. Stern of Hollywood; David J. Perley of Naples; Mariano Leo of Palm Beach Gardens; and Patricia E. Neilsen, whose hometown was not identified.

Axinn said he was disappointed that so few Floridians have decided to speak out against repeal of the estate tax. He said he hopes more rich Florida residents consider adding their names to the list.

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