WASHINGTON - President Clinton on Monday issued a $1.84 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2001 that will force bankers to renew fights against several fees and tax hikes that they have defeated before.
The White House will try again to impose examination fees on state-chartered banks, raise estate taxes, increase taxes on some banks that convert to S corporations, tighten the accounting treatment of interest on short-term obligations, and restrict employer-purchased life insurance.
Many of these proposals would hit community banks hardest.
"The Independent Community Bankers of America strongly opposes a host of revenue-raising proposals in President Clinton's new budget," said Paul G. Merski, the group's chief economist and director of tax policy. "Many of these tax-hike initiatives are holdovers from previous budgets where they were opposed and rejected handily."
Yet the budget also includes some proposals that could benefit lenders including the removal of limits on student loan interest reductions and an increase in the low-income tax credit. Also, as expected, the President detailed his plans for Retirement Savings Accounts and the so-called "First Accounts" for low-income Americans.
Whether any of these plans will make it off the drawing board in an election year is unclear. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Tex., blasted the President's budget.
"This is the Regis Philbin approach to budgeting, except the government gets all the checks, not the American people," Rep. Archer said, referring to the host of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." "I guarantee that Republicans in Congress will strongly oppose the President's $181 billion tax hike."
For the eighth consecutive year, the Clinton administration wants to require the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Reserve Board to impose examination fees on state-chartered banks and their holding companies, respectively. The proposals would raise an estimated $507 million over five years, according to the Clinton administration.
Bipartisan contingents of the House and Senate Banking committees have already protested the idea.
"At present, the fee structure for federally chartered and state-chartered banks is the same," according to a Feb. 3 letter sent by 17 members of the Senate Banking Committee. "The balance represented by this fee structure is critical to the success of the dual banking system."
The President's plan could increase estate taxes for many small banks. Currently, estates get a standard $675,000 credit when computing death taxes. Under the proposal, this credit would be gradually phased out for larger estates. The proposal claims to raise $370 million over five years.
"It would increase the tax on many bank conversions to the next generation," Mr. Merski said. "A large majority of community banks are family owned. The estate tax is always a big concern."
Lenders also strongly opposed the President's proposal to decrease student loan subsidies by 31 basis points. The cut would cost the industry $3.8 billion over five years, and the administration justifies it by arguing that recent changes to the subsidy formula will increase bank profits and save hedging costs.
Consumer Bankers Association president Joe Belew called the proposal "disappointing and counterproductive" and urged Congress to reject it.
The administration has apparently backed off a proposal from last year that would have barred banks and other companies with more than $5 million of assets to avoid taxes when converting to an S corporation. That is good news for the industry because many small banks have been switching to the tax-saving S corporations, but officials said they were not completely spared because some employee stock ownership plans that are shareholders of S corporations would have to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of stock.
Also returning is a proposal that would force banks using the cash method of accounting to pay taxes on interest as it accrues daily on short-term loans, rather than on the interest after it is paid. That would cost the industry $98 million over five years.
Life insurance companies are particularly steamed this year. The Clinton administration seeks $13 billion in tax hikes over five years that directly involve life insurance firms - nearly double what it sought last year.
"It is the biggest proposed hit we have faced," said Douglas P. Bates, assistant vice president for tax matters at the American Council of Life Insurers.
One of the most costly provisions would scale back the tax deductibility of employer-purchased life insurance by nearly $2 billion over five years. Many banks would be affected, too, because they and other businesses borrow against these policies or have their insurance company invest the premiums.
There were some positives for the industry.
The President's plan would eliminate the 60-month limit on deducting some student loan interest payments starting Dec. 31, 2001. (The maximum deduction available is $2,500 in years after 2000.) That measure is, in part, supposed to save lenders from administrative expenses.
The administration would also spend $16.9 billion, or $1 billion more than currently budgeted, to raise the low-income housing tax credit over the next five years.