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WASHINGTON-Congressional conferees trying to hammer out a final tax bill are quickly reaching agreement on a slew of pension provisions but are still a long way from deciding the fate of more controversial benefit items.

The agreement informally reached on pension provisions last week as conferees worked out the differences between House and Senate tax bills won't become final until the conference committee approves the entire measure.

Pension provisions agreed upon include:

Allowing employers to remove from their pension plans former employees whose accrued benefits have a present value of up to $5,000, an increase from the current cash-out limit of $3,500.

Employers welcome this change because it will reduce administrative costs. Increasing the cash-out limit allows an employer to remove more former employees from the company's pension plan. That saves money for employers by reducing Pension BenefitGuaranty Corp. premiums and the cost of distributing annual reports and statements.

Conferees, though, still have to decide whether the $5,000 cash out-limit will be indexed to inflation. A congressional source said there had been preliminary agreement that the limit would not be indexed.

Removing the threat that a pension plan could be disqualified if the plan accepted a benefit rollover from a new employee's former pension plan, even if the former plan-unbeknownst to the new employer-had run into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.

Requiring the Labor and Treasury Departments to issue guidance by Dec. 31, 1998, on which documents and benefit notifications employers can distribute electronically to employees, such as through company e-mail systems.

Eliminating the need for employers to file-unless requested-summary plan description reports and another form, known as the summary of material modifications, with the Labor Department.

Delaying indefinitely non-discrimination rules for public pension plans.

Repealing permanently a 15% excise tax on large pension distributions, such as lump-sum payments that exceed about $800,000.

"We are very happy with that change," said Neil Grossman, vp of legal and regulatory affairs at the Assn. of Private Pension & Welfare Plans in Washington. The excise tax "always struck us as a silly policy that taxed people who have saved and have saved successfully."

Allowing employers to confiscate pension benefits of individuals, such as a plan administrator, who stole or embezzled assets from company pension plans.

Giving employers that do not sponsor pension plans-generally small companies-the ability to offer employees the opportunity to contribute to individual retirement accounts through payroll deductions. Under this provision, an employer offering a payroll deduction IRA would not be considered a plan sponsor and thus not subject to fiduciary and other rules under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Increasing to 15% from 10% the federal excise tax on employers that engage in benefit transactions that are prohibited by ERISA.

Still being debated is the fate of a highly contentious provision in the Senate bill, which would require 401(k) plan participants to obtain written consent of a spouse in order to withdraw funds from their account balances.

Backers of the proposal-attached to the Senate bill by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill.-say such a requirement is necessary to prevent situations in which a plan participant removes big chunks of money from an account and leaves the spouse devoid of retirement savings.

But employers fear a spousal consent requirement would raise their own administrative costs while discouraging employees who want easy access to funds from participating in the plans.

In addition, final decisions have not been made on other provisions, including those that in many situations would eliminate tax penalties on employees who withdraw funds from IRAs before retirement and those affecting payments the government makes to health maintenance organizations that provide coverage to retirees eligible for Medicare.