Between The Lines

My Don Quixote-like theme of dreaming the impossible dream – of asking political candidates vying for office in the upcoming general election to be honest with us – continues.

I'm sort of riding a tired, nearly dead horse, I know, after recently asking that Republican Sen. John Thune be a bit more forthcoming about the practicality of some of his recent proposals.

I'm compelled to get back on the honesty kick after watching a video stream on the internets of a recent debate between Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and her Republican challenger, Kristi Noem.

Now, get ready for a bit of paraphrasing here. I don't have Noem's exact language; I was watching this at home, and certainly not prepared to take notes.

But I think it's fairly accurate to say that one of points she brought up during the debate was something about permanently abolishing the federal estate tax, also known as the "death tax." And, as I recall, she included a bit of her own family history while discussing this issue, including the death of her father in a farm accident.

She talks about how she quit college to help take over the farm, and I believe (I'm sorry I can't verify this) she's been telling crowds that her family had to take out loans to pay estate taxes following her father's death.

She uses this story in her campaign to attack the expiration of the moratorium on estate taxes.

A recent Washington Post article about our state's U.S. House race describes the situation this way: "After they barely scraped together enough cash to pay the estate taxes, Noem became active in conservative causes."

Her conservatism is apparent. The story about having to scrape together enough cash to pay estate taxes? I don't buy that.

I could be wrong. I'm certainly no tax expert. But my dad, also a farmer, died about 15 years ago. I was aware of some of the estate matters that had to be handled following that. Never heard any mention of having to take out loans because our family farm, where my mother still resides, was being ravaged by estate taxes.

Because, I'm pretty certain it wasn't. Just as I'm pretty certain that the Noem family wasn't ravaged by the tax, either.

I think Kristi needs to document that yes, her family actually had to take out loans to meet their tax obligations. If that really did happen, however, it could be a bit embarrassing to the Noem family, as it would show that they really aren't too good at financial planning. And, you know, with the economy being like it is, I think we all want someone in Congress that understands money and taxes and the like.

Albert Hunt, writing a campaign piece in the fall of 2004 for the Wall Street Journal, noted that President Bush, while running for re-election, told an Iowa farmer in a town-hall meeting that he would be able to keep his family farm if the estate tax is repealed.

At the same time, Hunt reported, John Thune, running for the Senate against Minority Leader Tom Daschle, made total repeal of the estate tax one of the centerpieces of his quest.

This may be good politics, but it's a fraud, Hunt wrote. Several years ago, an Iowa State University economist couldn't find a single true Iowa family farmer who had to sell the farm to pay estate taxes. In fact, few Iowa farmers pay the tax at all.

Back in 2004, the now late but never to be forgotten Frank Slagle, a University of South Dakota Law School professor, noted that the estate tax is "irrelevant" to 99 percent of the state's population.

Kristi's dad died in 1992, a few years before my dad died. And, her mother is still living, as is mine.

I noted that I'm no tax expert, but it's my understanding that there is some type of spousal deduction written into the tax code, meaning that with a family farm, if the husband dies and leaves the assets of the operation to his wife, they aren't really included as part of the estate.

Hunt noted the effects of no estate tax would include the loss of about $60 billion a year in federal revenues (back in 2004). It would also adversely affect the coffers of state governments that piggyback off the federal estate tax.

Hunt adds, "But there's another huge problem: it would drain colleges, universities, hospitals, museums and even churches of much needed funds. A recent Congressional Budget Office report unequivocally asserts that repeal of the estate tax will cause a pronounced drop-off in charitable contributions.

This is Kristi's official stance, according to her web site, on this tax:

"We must end the unfair death tax that is especially hard on family-owned farms, ranches and small businesses and reduce marginal tax rates that families and small businesses pay."

Frank Slagle sadly isn't around, so I can't give him a call to see if I'm making sense here. But he did say, back in 2004, that the estate tax is irrelevant to practically everyone.

Except politicians, I guess.

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