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Beer, booze and a Harvey Weinstein tax make it into the latest Senate tax overhaul plan

WASHINGTON — Sex and booze made it into the congressional battle over taxes in a late-night revision.

The latest changes to a Senate Republican tax plan, released at 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, include tax cuts for producers of beer, wine and liquor, and a new provision that might be called the Harvey Weinstein tax: An end to corporations' ability to deduct attorney fees and settlement payments in sexual harassment or abuse cases if there is a nondisclosure agreement.

The liquor provision would reduce the excise taxes on American-made beer and distilled spirits, a change long sought by industry. It would also expand a tax credit currently available to small wine producers, making that break available to all wine producers and importers.

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And in a chaser, it would increase the alcohol content at which excise taxes on wine kick in. Right now, the lowest federal excise tax of $1.07 per gallon applies to wine that contains up to 14% alcohol and a $1.57 rate applies to wines with 14% to 21% alcohol. Under the proposal, the lowest $1.07 rate would apply to wines with up to 16% alcohol.

The liquor changes would expire after two years, and cost the treasury $4.2 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

They were proposed as an amendment by Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. A separate bill to make similar tax cuts permanently is sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Portman gave Wyden credit at a Finance Committee hearing Wednesday.

Like the industry seeking the cuts, Portman said the changes would produce jobs, citing 61 new breweries opening in the past year in Ohio.

"Ohio is No. 4 right now in craft beer production and we like that," Portman said. "This legislation is only going to promote the expansion and the jobs that come with these entrepreneurial small businesses."

For distilleries, the bill would cut the tax on the first 100,000 gallons produced from $13.50 a gallon to $2.70. A distiller that makes 100,000 gallons would have its tax bill lowered by nearly $1.1 million.

"Half the typical price of a bottle now goes to taxes," said Kraig Naasz, president and chief executive of the Distilled Spirits Council. "If you return some of that to producers large and small, those funds will be reinvested in businesses that create jobs and promote U.S. agriculture."

The change dealing with lawsuit settlements was proposed by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and spokesman Juan Pachon said it was motivated by publicity about settlements over harassment by Hollywood producer Weinstein and former Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly.

Weinstein, O'Reilly and their companies have used nondisclosure agreements, in legal settlements or employment contracts, to compel employees to keep quiet about alleged wrongdoing. Such agreements are pervasive in the business world, where they're used to protect everything from company secrets to sexual harassment.

"Right now a company can secretly settle allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, silencing the victim, and making it harder for other victims to come forward to seek justice," Pachon said.

Letting the companies write off the cost as an ordinary business expense is adding insult to injury, he said.

"Nothing about sexual harassment should be ordinary," Pachon said.

But attorneys who specialize in harassment cases were not sure the change would be a deterrent to companies that want secrecy.

"I do not believe wealthy, powerful wrongdoers would opt for public disclosure based on whether their payment is deductible or not," said Baltimore attorney Kathleen Cahill.

"If they want to do something truly meaningful about this serious, serious issue, they should make settlements nontaxable for the women," Cahill said.

Lisa Banks, of the Washington firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, said victims and companies both usually want confidentiality. Anything that would make companies less willing to settle could end up hurting victims, who would have to go through a prolonged and public process to get justice.

""I understand the impetus, it's a good one, to have more transparency," Banks said. "But the impact of having more out in the open is that it can have a negative impact on victims as well."