Wisconsin tax overseers have reputation for honest service

In the last 40 years only three persons have served as Wisconsin's equivalent of the commissioner of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. That position is administrator of the state's Division of Income, Sales, Inheritance and Excise Tax in the state Department of Revenue.

The limited turnover reflects the position is a classified position, protected by civil service rules. It could have been different.

Early in the 1970s then Gov. Patrick Lucey proposed removing a number of top division administrator positions from the civil service. Each would get a higher salary under the proposal.

Dan Smith, a tough Navy veteran, held the post. He declined the higher pay, saying it was important the state's chief tax collector remain in the civil service outside the whims of the political system. Smith prevailed; the position wasn't changed by the Legislature.

There have been no highprofile political scandals such as the recent IRS flap over questioning and dealing with Tea Party groups. Being division administrator is a high-pressure job. There are lots of self-important people, their accountants and their lawyers who would bend the state tax-collection process to their benefit.

Smith was fiercely protective of his people. And he was proud of their tax collection efforts. Statistics put out by the feds showed fewer IRS audits of Wisconsin residents than neighboring states.

At one Christmas party, journalists asked whether state residents were more honest than those in Iowa, Illinois or Minnesota. Smith laughed. No, Wisconsin residents aren't more pure or honest than other Americans.

The IRS audit comparison reflected the good job the Wisconsin tax collectors did in examining returns. The state and the feds share information, and IRS had a high respect for the job the state folks were doing, he said. In pre-computer days the state would look at three years of returns for a tax-filer

At that same Christmas party Smith asked a group of reporters if they ever checked the taxes of politicians. State law allows you to take a name to the Department of Revenue, pay a fee and learn what the person paid in state taxes for the specific year. No details or addresses, just a single number.

Weeks later, pondering Smith's question, I went to the Revenue offices. One of the persons was Robert W. Kasten. The clerk returned one dollar. I said I wanted four years checked, not three. It turned out there was no number for one year. No return on record. Subsequent news stories indicated Kasten, a congressman and then a U.S. senator, had blamed his secretary for failing to mail the return.

That excuse didn't fly at the Department of Revenue. After the news media focused on the story, Kasten retreated and paid the tax, interest and penalty. Both political parties now routinely check the annual tax record to see if their opponents filed income tax returns.

But there is a difference between "zero" and nothing. A decades old story explains the difference. A good friend on the Chicago Daily News called for help to see if a former Nazi concentra- tion camp guard was living in Wisconsin. Rumor in the Chicago Polish community suggested he was in Wisconsin.

I took the name and paid the one dollar at Revenue offices. The clerk returned and said the answer was "zero." Why then was he taking my dollar? People complete income tax returns when they filed for refundable homestead property-tax payments, he explained.

Curious, he asked why the name had popped up. This man was not a politician. I related the stories of his brutality at the concentration camp. The clerk excused himself. When he returned our conversation ended up talking in general about Clark County. It sounded like a lead. The information was returned to the Chicago reporter and in turn to the Nazi hunters.

That group enlisted the Clark County sheriff and he found the man who had been living as a recluse.

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