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Guest Editorial

A vote for I-920 is a vote for family-owned businesses

BY DON C. BRUNELL

It's every parent's dream to make life better for their children. For many business owners, that means one day handing the keys to the store over to a son or daughter. But too often, that dream dies when the owner dies.

In swoops the state and federal tax collectors demanding their cut - the inheritance tax. Too often, that visit comes before the kids have an opportunity to figure out how to move beyond mom or dad's passing. There is payroll to make, loans to pay, deliveries to schedule, and people to hire, not to mention the stress of stepping into the shoes of a parent who spent a lifetime building the business one customer at a time.

Often these family entrepreneurs are the backbone of the community. For example, in 1936, John and Gus VanderPol purchased Oak Harbor Freight Lines, a small Whidbey Island trucking firm, for $600 cash and assumed its debt. Their younger brother Henry joined them in 1937.

Today, their descendants, Ed and Dave VanderPol, are co-presidents. Now based in Auburn, they employ more than 1,300 people from California to British Columbia.

Over the years, the VanderPols have won several awards for safety and customer satisfaction, but they also have been recognized for their community service. For example, in 2002, Oak Harbor won a community partnership award in the Puget Sound area for transporting more than a half million pounds of produce free to 300 food banks and meal programs.

Congress understands that family-owned businesses like Oak Harbor Freight bind communities together. In 2001, federal lawmakers voted to phase out the federal death tax over 10 years.

But in 2005, Washington lawmakers approved a new state estate tax.

While its supporters claim the state death tax targets only "the rich," people like Ed and Dave VanderPol will find themselves and Oak Harbor Freight in its cross hairs.

The VanderPols aren't alone. The death tax targets a family's total assets, including your house, insurance policies, savings and investments like your 401k, as well as any vehicles, property and equipment. When you add it all up, the death tax's $2 million threshold doesn't seem "rich" at all. (There is an exemption for a family farm, as long as the family doesn't lease it out.)

The "death tax" is a killer for a family-owned business. The people hit hardest are those who worked hard all their lives to pay their bills and taxes, buy a home, save for retirement, and who, like John, Gus and Henry VanderPol, spent half a century building something to pass on to the next generation.

To protect the dreams of people like John, Gus and Henry, family business owners and others pooled their resources and qualified I-920, an initiative on the fall ballot that would repeal Washington state's estate tax.

Voters should pass I-920. By voting for I-920, people can show their support for thousands of home grown family-owned businesses in Washington whose jobs, payroll, and charitable works benefit communities throughout our state.

Henry VanderPol, one of the family founders of Oak Harbor Freight Company, celebrated his 90th birthday in September. We hope he still has many years ahead of him, but voters can give Henry the perfect gift this November by passing I-920, ensuring that the dream he and his brothers began 70 years ago doesn't die with him.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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