Thune Misses Mark with Another Shot at Estate Tax

John Thune hunting
Life would be easier if all I had to do was shoot birds… [pic from @SenJohnThune].
Two thirds of South Dakota’s Congressional delegation marks the weekend press-releasing about the pleasure of shooting the state bird. Senator John Thune shot that wad last weekend, so this weekend he has to get back to acting like an elected official instead of a marketing twit by talking about policy. Alas, our senior Senator’s weekend column is another screed trying to trick regular folks into backing one more handout for the rich, the repeal of the estate tax.

Thune lost some ground on his “death tax” argument earlier this month when his seat mate Senator Mike Rounds said repealing the estate tax isn’t necessary. Faced with the fact that the estate tax affects maybe 20 super-rich South Dakota estates each year and that most South Dakotans are millions of dollars away from ever paying it, Thune resorts to “one is one too many” absolutism:

In my opinion, one family-run operation that’s forced to sell because of the death tax is one too many. Now is the time to bury the death tax once and for all, and I’ll continue my years-long fight to do so in the tax reform bill I’m working on in the Senate [Sen. John Thune, weekly column, 2017.10.20].

One shooting with one gun should be one too many, but Senator Thune shrugs off that ill as the price of rootin’-tootin’ freedom, better solved by personal tactical responses than the repeal of anything.

Thune is trying to escape the fact that the harm he’s exaggerating is statistically insignificant. Let’s see how many “farmers” paid estate tax last year:

In 2016, only 682 taxable estates—or just 13% of all taxable estates—reported having any farm assets at all, said Beth Kaufman, an estate lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale and former associate tax legislative counsel at the Treasury Department.

And those farm assets represented just a small percent of the gross estate values on average. That suggests that for many in this select group, the farm was not the sole—and maybe not even the primary—source of income. It also suggests there may be other assets to tap if needed to pay an estate tax bill.

For example, Kaufman noted, farm assets represented just 5.4% of total assets on average in taxable estates worth between $5 million and $10 million. That drops to 3.6% for estates worth between $10 million and $20 million, to just under 2% for those worth between $20 million and $50 million, and to 1.5% of estates valued at more than $50 million [Jeanne Sahadi, “No, the Estate Tax Isn’t Killing Family Farms,” CNN Money, 2017.10.10].

Even the “poorest” estate tax payers are only holding 5.4% of their wealth in farm assets. For every dollar of farm assets, those taxpayers have 17 dollars in non-farm assets they can use to pay off whatever estate tax Uncle Sam is asking for.

Realizing he still can’t give a single example of the estate tax taking away a single family farm, Senator Thune has to resort to the subterfuge of saying that the farmers can only avoid the estate tax by spending enormous sums on accountants and estate planners:

For supporters of the death tax, their favorite talking point is that it hits a small number of family-owned businesses, farms, and ranches each year, as if that somehow justifies a confiscatory tax on a larger swath of Americans. What they conveniently fail to mention is the large expense – both in time and money – that farmers and ranchers invest during their lives to avoid being a death tax statistic. Too often, these folks have to hire costly lawyers, accountants, and estate planners, all of which can cost well over one hundred thousand dollars, to develop an effective estate plan. They can also spend tens of thousands of dollars each year in life insurance premiums – again, all just to avoid being a victim of the death tax [Thune, 2017.10.20].

By that argument, Thune could justify getting rid of all taxes (and doesn’t every tax “confiscate”?) that require all Americans to spend time and money preparing their returns, which is anarchistically absurd. The estate tax doesn’t just fund public services; at least as importantly, it helps reduce the concentration of wealth that poses a threat to democracy. Perhaps we can find ways to make it easier to pay without hurting the few farms it may impact (and we already do that). But arguing that a few wealthy pals want don’t want to pay as much for their tax lawyers isn’t the most statesmanly argument I’ve heard for repealing a tax.

But we know better than to expect statesmanship from Thune. He’s just tooting the pro-rich-man horn that keeps his donors and corporate minders happy. It’s too bad the only topic Thune and the rest of our Congressional delegation can discuss with authority and honesty is pheasant hunting.

37 Responses to Thune Misses Mark with Another Shot at Estate Tax

  1. mike from iowam

    What they conveniently fail to mention is the large expense – both in time and money – that farmers and ranchers invest during their lives to avoid being a death tax statistic.

    Seriously, M Barbie, most farmers worry more about getting crops in and out of the fields and the prices they might receive, rather than contemplate how not to pay a tax most of them won’t even come close to having to pay.

    Haven’t you got insurance to take away from people?

  2. The estate tax touches fewer than 5,000 per year and raises $20 billion. To kill the estate tax thune & his ilk will take money from nursing homes, Medicare, and your 401(k).

  3. Trump’s chief economic advisor and former Goldman Sachs boss Gary Cohn reportedly said this spring that “Only morons pay the estate tax.”

    Well, I wouldn’t want to call any farmers morons, but perhaps short-sighted skinflints would apply if they end up stuck with estate tax. An eager reader points to this Pioneer Press article that deflates Thune’s assertion that farmers are spending big bucks to dodge estate tax:

    Most such estate plans can be set up for $1,000 or less. Periodic updates take a couple of billable hours. So the costs to the businesses are about the same as buying a computer or the fuel that a big tractor burns up in two days of tillage work. Larger farms, with land worth tens of millions of dollars, may require more complex arrangements.

    …Talk to them and one often hears that estate tax avoidance is an additional motive for farm and business owners to do what they ought to do anyway for pure business reasons. These often include complex family situations where owners wish to pass wealth fairly to all children and grandchildren without advantaging the one who stayed in the business while her or his siblings moved away.

    So on the administrative burden of the tax, the idea that it drives huge outlays for businesses just doesn’t stand up [Edward Lotterman, “Real World Economics: A Disingenuous Take on the Estate Tax,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 2017.10.21].

    Disingenuous, indeed, Senator Thune! Setting up the necessary tax shelter is a typical cost of doing business which most farms will keep incurring even if estate tax is completely out of the picture. Thune is offering a disingenuous argument to cloud the fact that he’s advocating another tax cut for the super-rich.

  4. The entire tax reform effort Thune exacerbates is at issue:

    NPR tried to shoot this guy down but in a 10 minute interview no truth points were scored. NPR has been effectively neutered. “Trump’s Top Economist: a Dishonest Look at Who Benefits from Corporate Tax Cuts” Thune is just doing what the rest of the Trump administration does…lies his ass of for the benefits of the billionaires Kochs, Mercers, fossil fuel industry ect. AND “whether designed to serve the interests of big business, Tea Party xenophobes or the new Sunni-necon alliance ― …Trump doesn’t seem to mind. He knows what he wants.
    Outraged critics immediately turned to Congress and the courts for help, but it isn’t clear whether they will get it. Trump is fast filling vacancies in federal courts that will review these and other actions. He is doing so at a speedier clip …. Names are fed to the White House in assembly-line fashion by Leonard Leo, the leader of the conservative Federalist Society and one of the least-known most powerful people in D.C., AND
    [t]he die-hards around him ― like Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, speechwriter/foreign policy agitator Stephen Miller and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ― are […] playing a long game.” Howard Fineman 101317

  5. Is “one too many” also applicable to:
    – any who loose everything to pay for health care for themselves or family members?
    – deaths from the inability to purchase health care?
    – killings from the civilian availability of arms made to create firepower superiority?
    – deaths from lead (and other) poisoning from drinking water?
    – suicides in our poorest cities and communities with no economic opportunity?
    – deaths of hurricane victims from insufficient responses (and exacerbation of climate causes)?
    – casualties from the longest war in US history?

    or is absolutism only applicable to taxes that inconvenience the estate planning of the rich?

  6. drey samuelson

    Spot on, Cory, as usual.

  7. John Kennedy Claussen, Sr.

    Everyone should go over to the DWC website and type into its search engine “Thune estate tax” and “Noem estate tax.” Because is utterly amazing how many times those two have tried to kick the dead horse of the “Death Tax” fear through frequent press releases on this issue in just the last couple of years. Its a pattern like a broken record.

    Now in fairness, Senator Daschle back in the day often talked of a balanced budget amendment to no avail and Senator Johnson use to advocate a constitutional amendment against flag burning to no avail as well; but agree with them or not, these were at least two conceivable concepts. However, given the threshold of a $5.4 million estate for an individual or a $11 million estate for a couple, in order, for the estate tax to kick in means that most cannot relate to nor appreciate this alleged concept of a “Death Tax” – and especially, when the rich, whose estates are greater than the threshold, can legally hide from any estate taxes in this country thanks to South Dakota Republicans from the 1980s, who got rid of the ‘Rule Against Perpetuity,’ in terms of trusts, and created what we now call “Dynasty Trusts” potentiality for all rich Americans.

    So you see John and Kristi, South Dakota Republicans have already solved your alleged problem with estate taxes long ago, and thus,your press releases about the alleged “Death Tax” are neither cool nor en vogue….but they are predictable…..

  8. Leslie, I have heard NPR sounding “neutered.” They’ve been doing a pretty job of keeping me informed (especially now that non-stop hurricane coverage is over).

    O, that’s an excellent list. Yes, it is shameful that Thune invokes his absolutism only on behalf of his rich friends. We should particularly remind Thune and his voters that he should be applying that absolutism to health insurance: “3.5 million losing health coverage due to Donald Trump’s war of administrative attrition is 3.5 million too many.”

  9. This shouldn’t even be on the radar it’s just a waste of time
    Mike from Iowa is correct, most farmers don’t even worry about it because they don’t fall in the category. 5hose that do, solve the issue in estate planning; a six million dollar estate or 10million can easily be hidden and avoid taxes when 2-3 or more heirs are involved……..

    There should be more concern about the elderly whom the heirs have mad to look poor five years ago so on the 6th year they are eligible for Medicaid and can go into the nursing home,,, farmers do do this ALL the time

  10. T said: “There should be more concern about the elderly whom the heirs have mad to look poor five years ago so on the 6th year they are eligible for Medicaid and can go into the nursing home,,, farmers do do this ALL the time…”

    It isn’t just farmers. People in South Dakota do this all the time in general, because they can. Why would a person spend their own money on their long-term care needs if they can simply put their assets in a trust and then qualify for medicaid 5 years later? Would they be stupid to pay out of pocket when such an opportunity exists legally? Would their accountant or financial advisor be doing their job if they didn’t discuss this issue and let the client make the decision? Our state pretends to be fiercely independent and hard-working, but if you read between the lines and see how many people are suckling off the state or federal teat, it makes you realize what a big bunch of phonies there are walking around, complaining about how much harder they have it than everyone else.

  11. Ryan
    I agree with you 100%
    We farmers are the biggest complainers yes people take advantage of the system legally but why should they be able to when we all can take out nursing home coverage or an estate can afford the $90,000 a year for mom or pop it’s rightfully their money it’s just the heirs want it in their pockets TAX FREE but back on topic my point is this crying about the estate tax is a waste of everyone’s time and money…..

  12. bearcreekbat

    Conceptually, the “death tax” or “estate tax” is a loophole designed to allow heirs to receive millions of dollars in untaxed income. Under our tax code, all income, earned or unearned, is subject to the federal income tax unless the code provides for a specific exemption. The estate tax is, in effect, a huge exemption that effectively reduces the amount of taxes we might otherwise be required to pay on millions of dollars of unearned income. It is a huge tax break, not a tax burden.

    One of Thune’s goofy arguments is that the money in an estate has already been taxed and therefore should not be taxed a second time. The problem with that argument is that every dollar of income that any of us gets has been taxed multiple times before we get it. If you earn $100, you pay taxes on it. When you use the $100 to pay for goods or services, the recipient is taxed on it. When the recipient pays the rent, his landlord is taxed on the payment, and so on.

    The real argument Thune is making is that we should increase the exemption for estates to a level where all the heirs’ income from the estate is exempt from taxation. But, the problem is that there is no answer to the question “why do we need or desire such an exemption?” What makes income from an estate unique from all our other sources of income?

  13. These types of loopholes are legal, but I don’t think that means they are right or that the majority of people would agree with them if they knew they existed. Just like “bump stocks” being legal is a big deal right now – most people agree they should either be illegal or regulated more strictly, but we just didn’t realize they were out there.

    Rich people take advantage of public welfare programs because the programs are poorly written or poorly administered, and they would be crazy to voluntarily throw money away by not taking advantage of the system.

    I don’t see it as the kids, or the heirs, driving the use of these loopholes, either. It’s the little old couple who owns a few hundred acres of land, and they say “I just don’t want the nursing home to take everything I own – this land has been in my family for a billion years, so I want to pass it to my kids.” Well, that is a sympathetic story, right? After all, we are an agricultural state at our heart.

    So they then spend a couple thousand bucks to put a trust together, mom-and-pop get to live of the working class’s taxes, and they also get to pass their multi-million dollar estates to their kids or grandkids.

    Sounds like a win-win for the rich folks and their rich kids, eh? Gotta love the welfare-entitled conservatives in South Dakota. Too bad they are unlikely to understand the nuances of sarcasm in my thoughts, or the blatant irony in most of their eco-political positions.

  14. bearcreekbat – income and estate taxes are very different, and what you are saying doesn’t make sense.

    When a person earns money, they pay the income tax on earning that money. When a person dies, the IRS takes a look at what they are worth, and the levy a tax on that net worth. That is the estate tax.

    All income tax is paid outside of the calculation of estate tax. If a person dies and hasn’t paid income tax on their realized income yet, their estate or their heirs pay that income tax.

    If a person has $10M of cash at home, all from working, and he has paid income tax and all of that, the idea of taxing him on his net cash holdings at death is the “double-taxation” issue that some people are talking about. That argument is dumb, however, so I agree with you at the end of the day, but our paths to get there are not parallel.

  15. Bearcreekbat is saying the same thing I argue every time this topic comes up.

    Once again I’ll say it. Sibling “A” who works for daddy for 10 years at $100,000/year pays income taxes on $1 million of income. Sibling “B” who sits in prison for 10 years and inherits $1 million from daddy pays no income tax at all. “B” keeps the whole $1 million, and is better off than “A” who put in 10 years of long, hard work and paid taxes along the way for the same $1 million.

    We should do away with the estate tax and instead tax the beneficiaries of estates at the same tax rates as earned income. It’s the beneficiaries who receive the money, and they have not been taxed on that money previously. We should also tax capital gains and hedge fund profits at the same rates as earned income. Working people should not pay higher tax rates than investors or inheritors.

    The Democratic Party is not as good about pushing for tax equity for working people as the GOP Party is at pushing for tax inequity in the form of lower rates and exemptions that apply disproportionately to the wealthy.

  16. So, to you both, how would a trust be able to protect your property from drawing Medicaid for your nursing home coverage? My understanding of this is that the state of South Dakota will come after that, how can you set one up to avoid the state government from taking it to pay for your Medicaid services we taxpayers have paid for?

  17. Ror –

    You say to tax the beneficiaries instead of the estates, but the result is the same – the tax money comes from the estate and goes to the IRS, and then the beneficiaries get their cut. So, you want to eliminate the estate tax exemption, not the tax.

    I think I probably agree with you, but there are a lot of practicalities that I can’t wrap my head around that would create loopholes or odd results, so I want to hedge my opinion just slightly and say that I’m still formulating my opinion.

  18. Jerry –

    You pay a lawyer a few thousand dollars to use some magic words.

  19. bearcreekbat

    Ryan, your argument is not clear to me.

    Would you agree that our tax code starts with the premise that all income, earned and unearned, is subject to federal taxation, absent some specific exemption?

    And would you agree that a dead person pays no taxes because that person is dead?

    And would you agree that the decedent’s heirs will have to pay whatever taxes that are levied against the decedent’s estate?

  20. Lottery winner wins millions. IRS gets its cut. Genetic lottery winner wins millions. IRS should get its cut. All new money to the recipient. I don’t give a rat’s @$$ about the source. It’s income to the recipient. Tax it just like you tax someone who earned it working.

  21. No Ryan. I don’t want to keep the estate tax and eliminate the exemption. I want to eliminate the estate tax and impost income taxes on people receiving the money. That eliminates any claim of “double taxation.” Only the estate might have that potential argument – not a recipient.

  22. Pay several lawyers some thousands and get these kinds of magic words. Yikes!

  23. Looks like South Dakota has already figured out that trust thingy

  24. Tax the inherited property new parties acquire the land and usually ar in better shape those that say they would have to sell th land to pay for taxes are not realistic 2000 acres inherited farm land should generate you $100 (at minimum high as $160 ) an acre that pays a pretty hefty tax bill

  25. The same people like the majority don’t want to lose everything to the hospital or nursing home are sane who don’t any to pay literally thousands of dolllars to health and nursing hom premiums for the proper care….so why should the funding be obtainable (Medicaid) for mom and pop so the farm can be passed on to kiddos ..200 acres could st generate income

  26. bearcreekbat

    Jerry, that is a helpful link – thanks.

    As I understand Medicaid, an applicant’s resources include any property that he or she has transferred to an irrevocable trust within the last 5 years from the date of applying for Medicaid.

    So the trick planners use is to create an irrevocable trust with the future Medicaid applicant as one beneficiary and transfer all his or her assets into the trust. Then the future Medicaid applicant can live off the trust for the next 5 years. (Often the trust is created before it is necessary to go into a nursing home.) If the future Medicaid applicant enters the nursing home within 5 years, the trust funds can be used to pay the cost of the nursing home until the 5 year period lapses.

    After that period of time the trust apparently no longer counts as an asset and cannot be used to disqualify the applicant/nursing home patient from Medicaid.

  27. Bear, I think I was just quibbling with your suggestion that all sources of money are income, which they aren’t. Gifts, like birthday presents and inheritances, are not income to the recipient and are thus not taxed like income. I think you and Rorschach are both suggesting we tax all receipts from all sources as income, and I’m just suggesting that there are nuances to that rule that need to be thought about.

    If we tax inheritances like regular income, what about birthday presents? Starting when a person is born, should they pay income tax on the value of all the gifts they receive? Should we total up diapers and clothes and toys and call that income and the government should get a cut of that? What about christmas presents? Should a child have to report the gifts he receives and pay income tax on those little red wagons and lego sets?

    Maybe that goes to far, and people get a pass until they are 18, how’s that? Then every 19 year old pays income tax on the tuition his parents pay for him to go to college, because that’s a gift with a substantial value just like an inheritance, right? And people without rich relatives have to pay their own college expenses, so why should the kids who hit the genetic lottery get a tax-free education? Or maybe that is still too far? Then maybe we say if you make a gift during your life, that shouldn’t be taxed. How does that sound? Then everyone would transfer their property on their deathbed instead of through an estate plan, creating a loophole in your scheme that is designed to close loopholes. It isn’t just as easy as saying “tax everything!”

    The Federal Estate and Gift tax is designed to say something like “We expect people to make occasional gifts to other people, and they shouldn’t have to pay tax on those minor gifts. But, if the gifts get too big, the government wants a cut.” The exemption levels for gifts and inheritances are arbitrary, but they exist for a decent reason. Personally, I think a better system would include the estate tax, but with a much lower exemption and a much lower tax rate for the amount over the exemption. But hey, that’s just me, and my net worth is all red, so it matters very little to my situation.

  28. Jerry –

    Bearcreekbat’s explanation of the trust system and the 5 year rule is exactly right. Your links point to the consequences of hiring the wrong help. These types of plans happen every single day, and they work when they are done correctly. The “trick” isn’t to defraud the system, that’s a crime. The “trick” is to know the rules and apply them carefully.

  29. mike from iowa

    Sure spending quite a bit of time on something a miniscule amount of all Americans will have to experience. Inheritance taxes, alternative minimum taxes are a couple ways to try to ensure the wealthy pay at least some taxes.

    Wingnuts want to do away with both as a favor to the 1% while they raise taxes on the poorest by 2%. 2% doesn’t sound like much to a filthy rich person, but it is enormous for those who have virtually nothing.

    But what did I expect from callous politicians of the wingnut stripe?

  30. bearcreekbat

    Thanks for elaborating Ryan. I may not have been clear in my comments as I don’t share Ror’s view that we should eliminate the exemptions that protect estates from some federal taxation. The other exemptions that you describe, such as gifts, also seem appropriate, although I think the gift exemption changes or ends on gifts if the gift is large enough (similar to the estate tax on very large estates).

    My point was simply that Thune and other anti-estate taxers are playing upon people’s emotional responses by mischaracterizing their position as an “estate tax” objection when in fact they are seeking an increase in the “estate exemption” from normal income tax obligations. If people understood this to be an exemption, rather than a tax, I think they might think twice about further increasing this exemption for the extraordinarily wealthy in the manner sought by Thune.

  31. MFI –

    Agreed completely. I think most people here agree with you on this.

  32. mike from iowa

    Bear has good points as well. It should not need be repeated that the devil dressed as wingnuts try to obfuscate the real meaning of their plans.

    If I wanted a conversation that is miles over my head I would simply engage any old lawyer you see.

    What I don’t appreciate is cowardly pols baffling people with BS and claiming it is dazzling brilliance.

    Let’s get to the root of the problem and get the big bucks out of politics at all levels. That would eliminate large writeoffs for the 1% most of us can only dream of taking.

  33. mike from iowa

    Ryan, bcb is one of the most beloved, most honest, truthful, well prepared, well spoken people you will encounter anywhere. He is as close to a treasure as you’ll find on any blog anywhere and he likes guitars. :) There are others who have yet to reach godlike status, but I very much appreciate what they bring to Cory’s table, even when I have occasion to mildly disagree.

    ( i’m done sucking up for the day)

  34. bearcreekbat

    mfi, thanks for such kind words. I suspect that other posters on this blog might see things differently.

  35. Not I, bcb. But I do have a point that is sometimes missed. A trust to just steal government assistance for the nursing home just does not seem fair trade. That is what a trust amounts to regarding Medicaid nursing home coverage. Why should my tax dollars pay for someone who has more means than myself so they can avoid those costs.

  36. I’m not interested in quibbling about childhood birthday gifts. I favor a progressive income tax, and I believe that the first $x of income should be exempt altogether from income taxes to help both the poor who need the money and the economy in which the poor will spend the money.

    So for example, if the first $20,000 of income is exempt annually from income taxes, and all money coming to someone is taxed as income regardless of the source, then the kid who receives a gift or tuition, cash, etc. from his/her parent need not pay income tax except on the portion of the gift that exceeds $20,000 in a given year – the same as would the person who earns wages. Once again, the lucky treated the same for tax purposes as those who make their own luck, or who grind out a meager living. Whatever the level that my proposed exemption is set, it should be set for the first X amount of dollars received by anybody and everybody annually. So my position is also that we should get rid of the gift tax and its annual exemption because gifts should be treated as income to the recipient and taxed as such – at least those gifts in excess of an annual income tax exemption.

    I’m really tired of Democrats trying to find ways for the rich to pay less taxes than working people. Those who want to set up or continue a tax system in which rich donors and rich beneficiaries are favored over wage earners are GOP Party enablers. You’re speaking their language.

  37. Jerry says: “A trust to just steal government assistance for the nursing home just does not seem fair trade. That is what a trust amounts to regarding Medicaid nursing home coverage. Why should my tax dollars pay for someone who has more means than myself so they can avoid those costs.”

    I agree completely. The state of South Dakota apparently does not, however. You could always move to Minnesota, they have eliminated this issue through proactive legislation. I’m not confident that our state representatives are even aware of this controversy, but even if they were I doubt they would draft and implement the same approach because they are too busy setting interest rate caps that benefit nobody, nullifying the will of the voters, and handing every farmer with an open palm as much public money as they can for their incredible sacrifice of choosing farming as a livelihood.