PIERRE, S.D. – U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem is considered a favourite to become South Dakota’s first female governor after she easily won the deep red state’s June Republican primary. But Billie Sutton, a state senator and former professional rodeo cowboy who was paralyzed in a 2007 rodeo accident, has mounted a spirited challenge to be the state’s first Democratic governor elected in over 40 years.
Noem has tried to thwart Sutton’s campaign by reminding voters he’s a Democrat — Sutton has downplayed his party and cast himself as a moderate. He denies a claim in a Noem television ad that he supports a state income tax. That’s a sensitive subject in South Dakota, one of only seven states without such a tax.
A look at the claim:
NOEM ad: “Democrat Billie Sutton wants a new state income tax.” – TV ad text, Oct. 13.
THE FACTS: The claim is mostly false. The Noem campaign based the ad on audio from a state education funding task force meeting on Oct. 1, 2015. During a discussion about raising taxes for South Dakota teacher pay, Sutton said, “Just out of curiosity, um, why no discussion about a personal income tax?”
After laughter among participants, the governor’s chief of staff said: “We’re happy to put that down as your idea, though.”
“Now, wait a minute,” Sutton replied. “Just a curious question.”
Sutton’s campaign manager, Suzanne Jones Pranger, said in a statement that the laughter in the audio shows people in the room knew Sutton’s comment was “intended to bring some bipartisan levity to a five hour task force meeting on getting schools the resources they need” because the concept wouldn’t be accepted in South Dakota. Pranger said it was a case of Sutton using humour to connect with his colleagues.
State lawmakers, including Sutton and many Republicans, did later vote in 2016 for a half-cent sales tax hike to boost the state’s teacher pay. But Sutton said in a July 2018 interview and in a new TV ad that he’s against a state income tax.
If elected, Sutton said he wouldn’t propose tax increases, but didn’t promise to reject tax hikes that make it to his desk, according to the Argus Leader .
Noem’s campaign hasn’t provided evidence of any time when Sutton publicly endorsed an income tax.
Noem’s campaign has cited the state Democratic Party’s platform to bolster its case, saying in an earlier TV advertisement that Sutton’s “own state Democrat Party wants to create a new state income tax.”
The party’s 2018 platform contains a section saying it supports a “tax system which taxes all income levels fairly as allowed” by the state constitution. Party Chairwoman Ann Tornberg said it isn’t advocacy for an income tax, but instead a statement about fair taxes. Tornberg also noted Sutton wasn’t a voting convention delegate when the platform was adopted.