Leader Blues

Monday, February 09, 2009

EDITORIAL>>No-dough Garner

President Obama uttered words Thursday that we thought we would never hear from a president of the United States again, “I screwed up.” He was talking about nominating a cabinet officer who was discovered later to have ducked a considerable sum of income taxes on perks that he had received from a contractor. It was the third hire of the president to acknowledge tax problems, and two of them withdrew with the president’s assent if not his encouragement.

This was no niggling matter, although some said such nitpicking deprived the president and the country of the services of some astute people. But we expect the government and its agents to oblige the same rules that it punishes ordinary citizens for flouting. We have a tax system that is functionally voluntary and that depends upon everyone faithfully meeting their duty as citizens to remit the taxes they owe or collect. It cannot work if people who duck their duty are rewarded with high responsibility.

That is true at every level of government. On the same day that Obama’s health and human services nominee withdrew, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported that the ranking Republican member of the Arkansas House Revenue and Taxation Committee had failed for many years to remit to the state treasury sales taxes that he had collected at his bakery business in Little Rock and the income taxes that he had withheld from his employees’ checks. The state filed tax liens against Rep. Ed Garner, Republican of Maumelle, last year seeking recovery of some $50,000 that he had not remitted. The employees’ withholding that he had kept dated as far back as 1995.

Rep. Garner said it was no big deal, that his bakery business had struggled for a while and that, anyway, he had been making payments on the debt since the state got after him. He did not think his delinquency impaired his ability to influence tax policy as a member of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, where most tax bills are lodged. Garner led the fight in the House this week against the cigarette tax.

Garner’s problem is far more grievous than that of Tom Daschle, though the sum was smaller. These were not his own taxes but taxes he had collected from others and kept for his own use.

“I think I have plenty of credibility in that committee,” Garner said. If he does, he shouldn’t. He has none with the taxpaying public.