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POMMER: Anti-tax song has familiar ring

Taxes and death are supposed to be inevitable. Modern medicine has allowed some people to postpone death, but we always have been trying to get the best tax deal possible.

As the federal budget debate continues, Republicans are fighting to keep taxes from impinging on the monetary accumulations of the rich. Their dire warnings against taxes have reached the pitch that 60 years ago was aimed at communism. The message then and now is that America’s future is at stake.

Two Wisconsin anecdotes from the 1980s remind us that prosperous “alpha males” often are consumed with anti-tax talk.

Sen. Richard Kreul, R-Fennimore, told how a well-to-do farmer came to him urging the total repeal of the state’s estate tax. That’s the “death” tax that heirs — not the departed — pay to government.

The farmer said he wanted to make sure the farm he had built with all its silos would stay in the family. Kreul gently suggested that total repeal politically was impossible.

But the bite of the death tax dramatically could be reduced if not erased, the senator told the farmer. He suggested the farmer consult an accountant and lawyers to achieve his goals, possibly by a partnership with his children.

The farmer was unmoved by the sensible advice from the senator.  The farmer repeated it would be better to totally repeal the estate tax.

Partner with his children? “I don’t trust them,” the farmer explained to Kreul.

Well-to-do business folks also have tax requests. A top executive of the Kimberly-Clark firm, sought to have an executive bonus be considered in different years for federal and state income tax purposes.

The executive wanted to declare the bonus payments on his 1983 federal incomes taxes, but have it be part of his 1982 state income tax. The reason? Wisconsin had adopted an income tax surcharge for tax year 1983, but on the federal side 1983 would capture the full federal income tax cuts engineered by President Ronald Reagan.

It would have amounted to a “less than $5,000” tax saving, said David Martin, the former legislator who made the plea to state officials. The plea was rejected by state tax folks.

Shortly thereafter K-C headquarters moved to Texas, which had no state income tax. Democratic legislators suggested the income taxes might have played a role in the K-C decision.

Marlin Schneider, the long-time Democrat state assemblyman from Wisconsin Rapids, said once K-C folks saw Texas public schools they might send their children to private elementary and high schools. Public schools in Texas might not be nearly as good as those in the Fox River Valley, he suggested.

Schneider added the K-C leaders would find there were a lot more insects in the hot Texas weather. This summer’s drought and long heat wave particularly have been tough on tax-free Texas, triggering a memory of Schneider’s warning.

It might be some time before the crusade by right-wing radio talk shows against higher taxes on the wealthy begins to wane. But if you wait long enough, public attitudes can dramatically change.

Sixty years ago “pink” was a color of derision as in “pinkos” for people viewed by the right wing as “fellow travelers” of communism. Today pink has become the honored color and symbol of the fight against breast cancer.

Matt Pommer worked as reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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