A tax bracket divided over a plan to pay more

By Robert Pear

New York Times News Service

Published: Sunday, Oct. 30 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

DENVER — At a wine-and-cheese reception in his office here, Terry M. Barr, president of Samson Oil and Gas, made a pitch to industry executives to donate to the Republican Party of Colorado so that they could defeat President Barack Obama and elect more Republicans at the federal, state and local levels.

After his guests left, Barr offered a surprising postscript: He agrees with a proposal by congressional Democrats to impose a surtax on income over $1 million a year.

Republicans in Congress deride the proposal for a so-called millionaires' tax as class warfare. But in an interview, Barr said, "Wealthy people in the U.S. should be paying more tax, and I'm one of them."

Barr, a petroleum geologist who said he made $1.2 million a year, described himself as a staunch conservative, and said his views of tax policy reflected his fiscal conservatism.

"The United States needs a tax increase for the sake of its fiscal health," Barr said. "If you fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to pay for them. China owns a trillion dollars of U.S. government debt. That's not a healthy position for us to be in. We have to suck it up and pay more tax to help get rid of the deficit. I would pay more tax. I can afford to."

But the affluent are not of one mind.

Ann L. Brown, president of New Vista Image, a digital graphics company in Golden, Colo., said: "I believe in the American dream. I don't want to destroy it by taxing those who are successful. The millionaires' tax would penalize the very people who make our economy grow, including many small-business owners. I think we already pay a fair share of the taxes."

Those divergent views define the battle lines on an issue that has moved to the center of political debate this fall. The Democrats' campaign for a millionaires' tax will resume when the Senate returns on Monday. Democrats want to use the tax to pay for Obama's jobs bill — the whole $447 billion package or any piece of it they can push through Congress.

Unable to pass the jobs bill as a whole, Senate Democrats decided to break it into pieces, using the same source of revenue.

This week they will try to pass a measure providing $60 billion for transportation and public works projects, financed by a millionaires' tax.

The debate offers a preview of a much larger fight over whether to extend tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 and scheduled to expire at the end of next year. Republicans generally want to preserve what are known as the Bush tax cuts for all Americans. Democrats, by contrast, want to let them expire for the highest-income taxpayers.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said Republicans refused to "put a little teeny, tiny tax on millionaires' income" to create jobs. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, said Republicans were "fixated on protecting millionaires and billionaires" — an assertion made repeatedly by Obama as he has campaigned for re-election and for his jobs bill.

In his weekly address on Saturday, Obama expressed alarm about growing income inequality, which is also one of the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its supporters.

Obama said he believed that many high-income people agreed with his proposal. "One survey found that nearly 7 in 10 millionaires are willing to step up and pay a little more in order to help the economy," Obama said.

James Walker, who manages oil and gas wells in the northeast corner of Colorado, said the proposed surtax would be disastrous.

"That tax would grab a whole lot of small businesses that are on the cusp of success," Walker said. "The tax policies coming out of Washington could crush domestic oil and gas production by us little guys."

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