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Noem, Sutton spar over income tax claim in governor debate

FILE - This combination of file photos shows South Dakota gubernatorial candidates, Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, left, and Democrat Bille Sutton. The first general election debate in the top-tier race for South Dakota governor comes as Republican Kristi Noem has sought to dispel Democratic challenger Billie Sutton’s moderate image, while Sutton has portrayed Noem as a Washington politician working for special interests. (AP Photo/File)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Republican Kristi Noem repeatedly sought to banish Democratic challenger Billie Sutton’s moderate image Tuesday during their first South Dakota governor’s race debate, even as Sutton rebuffed claims that he supports an income tax in the heavily conservative state.

Noem, a four-term congresswoman favored to become the state’s first female governor, repeated her campaign’s claim during the KELO-TV debate that Sutton backs a state income tax and tied him to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sutton, a self-described “pro-life and pro-Second Amendment” moderate, called the tax claim “unequivocally not true.” A state senator and former professional rodeo cowboy paralyzed in a 2007 rodeo accident, Sutton would be the first Democrat to hold the office in decades.

His campaign got a boost in the past week with endorsements including the backing of the state’s largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. But Noem is significantly outraising and outspending Sutton in the race.

Here are the debate takeaways:

POLITICAL JABS

Noem took aim at Sutton’s trustworthiness during the debate, saying his background and votes in the Legislature are different than his rhetoric in the governor’s race.

“If Billie believed everything that he said in this campaign, he’d be a Republican, but he’s not. He’s a Democrat,” Noem said.

Sutton labeled Noem part of the status quo and said voters can’t trust her to clean up state government because she’s broken campaign promises. Sutton took aim at Noem for getting significant campaign contributions from “out-of-state special interests.”

In her pre-general election campaign finance report, Noem reported raising nearly $975,000 from out-of-state or federal political action committees, compared to $23,500 for Sutton.

TAXES

Noem frequently invoked her campaign’s allegation that Sutton supports a state income tax, a claim that Sutton denied during the debate. It’s a delicate subject in deeply conservative South Dakota, which is one of only seven states without such a tax. An Associated Press Fact Check of the allegation found it mostly false.

But Noem said Sutton floated it as an idea for revenue during a state education task force and has been hoping South Dakota gets an income tax.

“I do not support a state income tax, though, unequivocally,” Sutton said. “You’re hearing it here.”

GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY

While the candidates sparred over trustworthiness, both emphasized their government transparency plans in the wake of major financial misconduct scandals that grabbed South Dakota headlines. (Neither one was involved.)

Noem dove into the specifics of her proposal, which includes enacting a reporter shield law, limiting the state’s ability to negotiate confidential settlements unless necessary to protect a victim’s privacy and curtailing executive sessions at meetings.

“The taxpayers need to trust their state government again,” Noem said.

Sutton turned to his legislative record that includes legislation to make government documents such as emails, correspondence and calendars public records under South Dakota law. He also called for increasing the retention time for fiscal records.

“I’ve led the charge on this issue to clean up state government,” Sutton said. “It’s the establishment that has been fighting me on this, and Congresswoman Noem is part of the status quo and part of the establishment.”

BATHROOM BILL

Noem and Sutton diverged over a 2016 bill vetoed by Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard that would have required transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender at birth. Sutton opposed the measure, which brought national attention to South Dakota, and said during the debate that the state is “better than that.”

Noem said she would have signed the bill and then kept working on it. Noem said she doesn’t believe in discrimination, but thinks “boys should use boy bathrooms, girls should use girl bathrooms.”

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