- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

A tax break for environmental groups is being added to part of President Bush's faith-based initiative, angering some conservatives.

The provision gives a 25 percent discount on capital-gains tax to private property owners who sell their land to environmental groups or the government, instead of to other private parties.

Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, called the environmental tax break a "dangerous concept" that "favors conservationists over churches, schools and orphanages."

"It's one thing to encourage charitable giving; it's another thing to distort the marketplace," said Mr. Gramm, who plans to attack the provision today at a Senate Finance Committee meeting.

The tax cut is supported by the Bush administration and sponsored by Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and Finance Committee chairman, and ranking member Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican.

Mr. Baucus defended the tax cut, saying "We're trying to protect the value of more open space." Mr. Grassley supports the concept because he says it will benefit farmers.

Private-property-rights groups are fighting the tax cut, which first appeared as a 50 percent break in Mr. Bush's budget. The budget remains deadlocked in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and attaching the tax cut to the popular faith-based initiative makes it difficult to defeat, critics say.

"The administration must be very uncomfortable with the lack of support from their constituency to sneak this land-grab program into the faith-based initiative," said Carol LaGrasse, president of the Property Rights Foundation.

"I just can't believe it, Bush is such a disappointment," Mrs. LaGrasse said. "But we are not giving up."

Mr. Gramm will try to remove the provision from the overall package of tax benefits for donations to faith-based or community charities during the bill's consideration today in the Senate Finance Committee. He unsuccessfully tried to do so last week.

He warned that if the tax cut remains in the bill, he will offer amendments on the floor to extend the same benefit to "every bleeding heart" group.

Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican and assistant minority leader, said the capital-gains tax should be reduced for everyone.

"The solution is to reduce the capital-gains tax to 15 percent, period," Mr. Nickles said.

Mike Hardiman, spokesman for the American Land Rights Association, called the tax cut a "gravy train for wealthy land trusts."

"It's so sleazy, so disingenuous. They can't defend this stuff in public, so they are trying to sneak it through in an unrelated bill. This is looney," Mr. Hardiman said.

Historically, when "green" groups purchase private land, they sell it to state or federal governments, which takes the property off tax rolls and hurts local economies, as well as costing the government money to sustain the property, Mr. Hardiman said.

The House passed a faith-based initiatives bill last year, but it did not contain the environmental tax cut.

"Will wonders never cease?" said Henry Lamb, president of the Environmental Conservation Organization. "That just boils my water."

The underlying charities bill crafted by Mr. Baucus and Mr. Grassley is based largely on a bill crafted by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, along with the White House.

Providing tax incentives to encourage charitable giving is a top priority of Mr. Bush and represents a piece of his larger faith-based initiative. Among other things, the bill would allow those who do not itemize on their taxes to deduct some of their charitable giving and would allow tax-free donations from Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) to charities.

The House-passed bill contains similar provisions, but also contains the hotly debated "charitable choice" component, which would allow religious organizations to compete for a wide array of government grants. The Senate bills do not contain charitable choice.

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