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Four Tennessee companies – including Nashville-based HCA Holdings Inc. – were among more than 100 Fortune 500 companies that paid zero or less in federal income taxes in at least one year from 2008 to 2012, according to a new study.

In addition, the study found there were 26 Fortune 500 corporations that were consistently profitable between 2008 and 2012 yet paid no federal income taxes, according to a new study. The federal tax rate on corporate profits is set at 35 percent, although few companies actually pay that full rate.

The findings are part of a survey of 288 profitable corporations by Citizens for Tax Justice, a left-leaning group.

Citizens for Tax Justice said its report, which updates a 2011 study, is intended to highlight the use of tax breaks at a time when the congressional effort to overhaul the tax code reaches a crossroads.

In 2011, the study reported that HCA reported a profit in fiscal 2011, but had a federal tax balance of -$119,000 for an effective federal tax rate of -3.27 percent. For the five-year period that the study covered, however, HCA's federal tax rate averaged 22.84 percent.

A company spokesman was not immediately available for comment on the study's funding.

Memphis-based FedEx, meanwhile, had two years during the five-year span when it paid less than zero in taxes, while Memphis-based International Paper had two years with tax liabilities under zero as well.

In addition, Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport reported a tax liability of less than zero in 2009.

Citizens for Tax Justice Director Bob McIntyre said he hopes his group's new study will generate public support for closing corporate loopholes.

"At some point, the public has got to wake up and demand it," he said. "You would think it would have happened already."

McIntyre said the most egregious finding of his group's study is that one-third of the companies surveyed pay less than 10 percent in taxes.

Two Tennessee corporations – FedEx and International Paper – are a part of that group. Over the five-year span of the sudy, FedEx paid an effective federal tax rate of 4.21 percent while International Paper's effective tax rate was 2.61 percent.

Some use tax breaks for capital expenses, such as accelerated depreciation, to greatly reduce their tax burden. And multinationals with overseas operations can attribute profits from products sold in the U.S. to subsidiaries located in a tax haven.

"And at the other end, you have the ones that can't threaten to leave to the United States and they have to pay the regular rate," he said. "Congress doesn't give them tax breaks. It's a crazy system."

One of the biggest tax breaks claimed by corporations was stock options for top executives, which are deductible from corporate income taxes but don't reduce earnings reported to stockholders.

Among 125 firms that earned at least 10 percent of their pretax profits from overseas operations, two-thirds paid a lower tax rate in the U.S., the study found.

The rate IBM paid on its overseas operations, for instance, was five times higher than the rate it paid on U.S. operations over 12 years. Between 2011 and 2012, the study found, IBM paid a rate of 5.2 percent in the U.S. while paying 29.3 percent overseas.

McIntyre said that finding repudiates claims by business lobbyists that the U.S. levies the highest corporate taxes in the world and needs to lower the statutory rate of 35 percent.

"The lobbyists are all saying we have to cut the U.S. corporate tax rate because other countries are being so nice to us," McIntyre said. "It's not true. In fact, most of them pay higher taxes in countries where they do business abroad than they do in the United States."

IBM said last week the Citizens for Tax Justice report "is misleading and does not represent an accurate depiction of IBM's tax liability owed on its U.S. operations."

Former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, resigned earlier this month following his confirmation as ambassador to China.

Baucus had collaborated over the past year with Republican Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to build a bipartisan coalition for tax reform.

Camp plans to release his own draft proposal Wednesday. The New York Times reported Tuesday that he will call for lowering the top corporate tax rate to 25 percent.

But with so many other policy issues stalled in Congress and Baucus gone, there's little chance tax reform legislation will pass this year. Senate leaders confirmed that Tuesday.

Citizens for Tax Justice Director Bob McIntyre said he hopes his group's new study will generate public support for closing corporate loopholes.

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