Today, a Christmas story for Our Town.
It involves the Internal Revenue Service (color it Scrooge), some southern Christmas tree growers (color them green) and Sen. Russell B. Long (color him Santa).
Sen. Long (D-La), the cherubic Father Noel of federal taxation, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which some people think invented the Christmas tree.
That king of Christmas tree has special meaning in the Senate. It is usually a simple little bill, a tax bill, let's say, that gets so laden with goodies and gifts and attractive doodads that it resembles . . . a Christmas tree.
But this story is about real Christmas trees, the evergreen kind that the miracle of modern agriculture has made possible to grow in half the usual time -- in Louisiana, as it happens.
Years ago, Christmas tree growers in the North, who need about six years to raise a typical tree to market size, prevailed upon Congress to give them a tax break.
If their trees were at least six years old, Internal Revenue would consider them "timber." Timber, under the tax code, is given capital gains treatment -- meaning tax is paid only on part of the profits from its sale.
The idea, explains Don McNeil, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association in Milwaukee, was to bring "all the things that make America great" to the ornamental evergreen industry, as the IRS would call it.
People would invest in the industry, jobs would be provided, the economy would be bolstered, profits would be reinvested, the environment would be enhanced. Christmas would be forever.
Then agricultural researchers at the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service began looking at the possibility of promoting Christmas tree production in the South.
They found a way, mostly by row-planting and pruning techniques, to raise Virginia pines to Christmas tree size in about three years. And so a small industry was born.
But there was a problem. The southern tree growers could not get the same capital gains treatment their northern counterparts were getting with the six-year trees.
Not fair, they cried, and that's where Lloyd A. Carville, a farm management specialilst with the extension service in Baton Rouge, got involved.
Carville started knocking on the IRS door in New Orleans, appealing for a change that would extend the tax break to three-year trees.
"I got more damned double-talk," he said the other day. "It was like an Indian reservation -- everyone was chief and they all spoke a different language."
Carville then did what everyone else would do. He turned to Washington for help, to Long and to Donald C. Lubick, assistant secretary of the treasury for tax policy.
There ensued a lovely exchange of correspondence, ferreted out by researchers from the Tax Analysts and Advocates organization. It is a fitting story for this season.
Times arise when a bureaucrat, even a tax bureaucrat, must become a Grinch. That is what Donald C. Lubick did. He said no to the three-year break.
He told Carville that three-year evergreens in no way could be called "timber." And, Lubick added if the idea was simply to increase Christmas tree stocks as Carville suggested, then maybe the tax "subsidy" also ought to be given to the producers of factory-made Christmas trees.
That night please the aluminum companies if they had thought of it, but surely it would not bring joy to the tree growers, norther or souther.
Next, Long entered the picture, also asking Lubick for his views on the three-year capital gains change. Lubick said no, senator, a thousand times no.
All anyone was asking, Long insisted, was for "equal tax treatment for all growers of Christmas trees, regardless of whether their trees are ready for sale before or after the sixth year."
Lubick stood his ground, even with the committee chairman's rather pointed suggestion that he might want to reconsider his decision.
But truly great Christmas stories, the stories that capture the essence and spirit of the season, do not end with a single telling. They return and they are repeated, even embellished.
"We feel capital gains is an essential element to the Christmas tree industry," said association director McNeil. "If somebody can find a way to grow a tree in one year, he ought to be able to qualify for a capital gain."
As sure as there is a Santa Claus, the tree people will be back.