Despite hostile conservative rants, there is now widespread public support for the federal law mandating that major public initiatives must pass an environmental impact analysis, detailing what harm--or good--a new highway, airport or dam will do to the environment. Perhaps it is time to require an even more valuable review for all public policies: an equity impact analysis.

Every time legislation is proposed--such as privatizing Social Security, allowing school vouchers or creating new tax loopholes--there should be a careful assessment of how such a policy would affect the distribution of income and wealth in the country, access to housing, jobs and education, and opportunities for both security and self-improvement.

In theory, such an equity impact statement should appeal even to conservatives. After all, they are always insisting on cost-benefit analyses of every new regulation of corporate behavior. In many cases, congressional committees and watchdog groups already make some calculations of relative benefits of some legislation, but doing it systematically would help focus attention on how much public policy redistributes income--usually upward.

For example, after an orgy of tax cutting and loophole creation in the early '80s resulted in big corporations paying, on average, less than 15 percent of their income in profits (and many of them paying nothing at all), there was a public backlash. The subsequent 1986 Tax Reform Act effectively raised the average corporate tax rate to 26.5 percent.

But over the years, according to a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, changes in tax policy and new corporate tax strategies steadily lowered the effective rate on big corporations to about 20 percent in 1998. Certain industries--oil, electronics, forest products, motor vehicles and pharmaceuticals--benefited most from loopholes, cutting their taxes by 42 to 65 percent.

One increasingly lucrative escape route permits corporations to write off stock options for employees--mainly executives--as business expenses for tax purposes, even though they are not counted as expenses when calculating profits. Largely as a result of that one provision, last year neither Microsoft nor Cisco Systems, two of the wealthiest corporations in the country, paid any federal income tax.

As a result of these breaks, other taxpayers pick up a larger tab--especially individuals but also other corporations and industries that are not as tax-favored. Moreover, there's little evidence that these tax breaks yield any social benefits, let alone benefits commensurate with the costs. That's especially evident compared to the alternative of spending the money--nearly $100 billion over three years for 250 of the nation's biggest companies--on education, health care, research or environmental protection.

These federal tax breaks are only a small part of the problem. States and localities have been bludgeoned for decades by businesses demanding tax breaks as enticements to relocate or simply stay where they are. There is substantial evidence that these tax breaks are not effective in creating jobs or even influencing location decisions, but few political leaders have been willing or able to stand up to this corporate blackmail. Increasingly, however, local communities are demanding some accountability from businesses--such as provisions that "claw back" subsidies if they do not yield promised job growth. But a recent study by Good Jobs First, an affiliate of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, concluded that state and local governments rarely have adequate tools to audit corporate performance.

Greater disclosure of business tax breaks would be necessary for future equity impact analyses at all levels of government, but information and analysis are not enough by themselves. Business wins the tax breaks it has because of its power, both through political contributions and the threat of moving investment. Exposing existing inequities and making the case for a fairer distribution of wealth and income are only the first steps in a much more ambitious effort to curb corporate power.