Elections

GOP senator calls on Democratic rival to reveal whether she escaped taxes some years

Deborah Ross, a Democrat who’s challenging North Carolinaâ’s senior Republican U.S. senator, Richard Burr, answers questions from supporters following a town hall event focused on business Wednesday, August 3, 2016, event at American Underground in Durham.
Deborah Ross, a Democrat who’s challenging North Carolinaâ’s senior Republican U.S. senator, Richard Burr, answers questions from supporters following a town hall event focused on business Wednesday, August 3, 2016, event at American Underground in Durham. tlong@newsobserver.com

Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina on Wednesday called on his Democratic challenger, Deborah Ross, to release the cover sheets of her tax returns to show whether she and her husband capitalized on hefty credits for historic renovations to pay little or no state or federal taxes at times over the past decade.

“There are serious questions about whether there are years where Deborah Ross avoided paying state or federal income taxes,” Burr said in a statement. “The voters of North Carolina deserve to know if the actions Ross took as a legislator allowed her to pay little or no federal or state income taxes.

“I am calling on Deborah Ross to release her tax summaries for the years that would have been affected, when she and her husband qualified for $267,000 in tax credits.”

Burr said that if Ross obliges and releases the summary sheets, “in a show of transparency” he would make public summaries of his state and federal tax returns dating to 2004 when he first won his Senate seat. A campaign spokesman, Jesse Hunt, said Burr was speaking about the first two pages of each return.

Ross has run a campaign predicated on deception, and this is another attempt to avoid being held accountable for her record. The voters deserve to know what Deborah Ross may be trying to hide.

Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, in a statement

Through a spokeswoman, Ross promptly rejected the offer. There is no evidence that Ross’ legislative actions, while a North Carolina House member from 2003 to 2013, enabled her husband to qualify for the credits from his renovation hobby.

“Deborah is not going to engage in his desperate political stunts that are simply aimed at distracting North Carolinians from his record of working to make himself richer in Washington,” campaign spokeswoman Helen Hare said.

The two candidates are locked in a heated race that is being watched nationally because some polls have shown Ross with a narrow lead. The outcome could help determine whether Democrats seize control of the U.S. Senate.

Burr’s advantage as an incumbent may have been eroded not only by demographic changes in recent years that have left the state evenly divided politically, but also because he is running in a presidential election year for the first time since 2004. That will almost assuredly lead to a higher voter turnout than a mid-term election, a change that could benefit Ross.

Deborah is not going to engage in his desperate political stunts that are simply aimed at distracting North Carolinians from his record of working to make himself richer in Washington.

Helen Hare, campaign spokeswoman for Deborah Ross.

McClatchy reported exclusively last week that Ross and her husband, Stephen Wrinn, qualified for $267,000 in tax credits between 2006 and 2014 for Wrinn’s work in preserving historic features while renovating their colonial Raleigh home, an adjoining rental unit and a century-old mill in the Blue Ridge mountains.

The state credits were already in place when Ross won her state House seat in 2003, and there is no evidence that she or her husband engaged in illegal or unethical behavior.

However, she was a leading champion of the state program offering 20 to 40 percent historic tax credits, depending on the type of construction, during her decade in the state House. In 2013, before leaving office, she proposed unsuccessful legislation to repeal a law canceling the tax credits. At the time, her husband was working to finish the mill renovation before the program was due to lapse on Jan. 1, 2015.

Wrinn finished the work in time for the project to win certification to be listed on the Interior Department’s National Register of Historic Places, qualifying the couple for 20 percent state and 20 percent federal credits on the project – tax reductions of $4 for every $10 in renovation costs. They earned similar credits on the prior projects.

Ross has been credited with authoring 2005 legislation that extended the tax credits to cover restorations of vacant buildings from industries gone offshore, including tobacco and furniture warehouses and textile mills. Those credits propelled historic preservation activity in North Carolina to $1.5 billion to $2 billion and changed the faces of cities such as Burr’s hometown of Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill and smaller towns, including Gastonia and New Bern.

Ross’ campaign says that between 2010 and 2015 alone, there were nearly 5,000 instances of state projects qualifying for historic tax credits, including about 200 in her former Raleigh legislative district. The program has been lauded for leading to the revitalization of historic sections of the capitol city.

Burr’s call for Ross to release her tax data – her campaign has said only that “she paid her taxes” – creates awkward comparisons for both candidates, given Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s refusal to release his income tax returns as presidential candidates have done for decades.

The New York Times recently obtained a copy of Trump’s 1995 return, showing more than $900 million in tax loss carryforwards. The newspaper quoted tax experts as saying Trump could have expunged his tax liabilities for up to 18 years.

Hunt declined to respond to a question as to whether Burr feels Trump, whom the senator has endorsed, also should release his tax returns.

Burr has never released his tax returns during his 22 years in Congress.

Ross’ campaign did not mention Trump, and his refusal to release his tax returns, in its comments Wednesday.

The exchange was only the latest in a volley of increasingly shrill and oft-hyperbolic charges and political ads from both sides, with less than three weeks to the election.

In his statement, Burr charged that “Ross has run a campaign predicated on deception, and this is another attempt to avoid being held accountable for her record. The voters deserve to know what Deborah Ross may be trying to hide.”

Burr’s campaign also has charged that, while in the legislature, Ross missed more than 150 roll call votes because she was making trips abroad footed by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Ross’ campaign, in turn, accused Burr of missing 70 percent of hearings held by the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2009 and 2010, while he served on the panel. Becca Glover Watkins, a spokeswoman for Burr’s Senate office, said the missed meetings were the result of scheduling conflicts with another committee. In his current role chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee, she said, he has a “near perfect record of attendance.”

Colin Campbell of The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer contributed to this story.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2

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