Fact check: Is Tillis right about Cunningham's 'butler's pantry?'
Posted September 28, 2020 5:47 p.m. EDT
Updated September 30, 2020 4:56 p.m. EDT
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis claims that his Democratic opponent is out of touch with most North Carolinians.
And he saved one of his more memorable accusations against Cal Cunningham for his closing statement in the Sept. 14 debate on WRAL.
“Cal criticizes tax breaks for the wealthy, but when Cal was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, he got a $40,000 tax incentive to update his butler’s pantry,” Tillis said in his closing statement.
“I didn’t know what a butler’s pantry was because we didn’t have them in the trailer parks I grew up in,” he said. “But really, he may have qualified for it but used that. Cal will say anything to get elected.”
Republicans have used various forms of this claim to attack Cunningham, citing a story by Real Clear Politics.
Tillis offered a similar line during the Sept. 22 debate on CBS 17, saying: “When (Cunningham) was making almost $300,000 a year, he got a tax credit from the state of North Carolina, $40,000, to renovate his house including a butler’s pantry,” he said around the 26-minute mark of this video.
The Tillis campaign went a step further in a recent press release, accusing Cunningham of “abusing” the tax credit. Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s video ad claimed that Cunningham got a tax break for not only a butler’s pantry, but also a wet bar.
(If these attacks sound familiar, that may be because Tillis’ fellow Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr questioned his opponent’s use of the same tax credits back in 2016.)
So what’s the truth about Cunningham’s use of the tax credit and his home renovation?
- Cunningham did receive a $38,000 tax credit for renovations to his house, which is considered a historic property.
- A butler’s pantry was one part of several renovations.
- The “butler’s pantry” and “wet bar” were two terms used by an inspector to describe the same area in Cunningham’s kitchen. They are not two separate areas.
- There’s no evidence that Cunningham has done anything illegal.
Additionally, Cunningham says he doesn’t have a butler.
Tax credits for renovations
North Carolina offers tax credits to people who restore historic homes.
According to state law, the owner must spend at least $25,000 on renovations to qualify for a tax credit. The owner must also “provide a copy of the certification obtained from the State Historic Preservation Officer verifying that the historic structure has been rehabilitated in accordance” with state law.
Cunningham owns a historic home in Raleigh and he applied for the credits in 2014. We reached out to the state’s Historic Preservation Office about Cunningham’s renovations. Officials said they’re not allowed to speak about individual taxpayers.
However, they directed us to state records showing who has received tax credits for historic home restorations. PolitiFact also obtained Cunningham’s application.
Records from 2015 show Cunningham spent $129,536 on renovations to his home. Records show he then received $38,860 in tax credits, which were granted to him in installments of $7,772 over the course of five years (as required by law).
Cunningham’s application includes notes from an inspector, revealing each part of the house under consideration for renovations. It shows he sought to:
- Add a roof over the basement doorway,
- Add stained glass windows to bathrooms,
- Replace hardwood floors,
- Remove walls on the first floor, as well as one in the upstairs bathroom,
- Relocate a sink,
- Repair a retaining wall outside,
- And renovate part of the kitchen.
The “butler’s pantry” is one of several renovation ideas mentioned in the inspector's notes about the kitchen.
“The kitchen seems to be in two distinct pieces, much (of) which is in what was probably the original kitchen,” the inspector wrote. “The secondary cooking area and eating bar are in the space that was probably originally the breakfast room. Several of the appliances are non functional and need replacing.”
The inspector said this about Cunningham’s plans to update the kitchen:
“Modifications hope to consolidate the main kitchen elements back into the original space and render the cooking extension into more (of) a wet bar/butler’s pantry area. The stove that does work will replace the cooktop and wall oven in the primary kitchen space. Dishwasher will be replaced with new venting to be determined.”
That’s all the application says about the “butler’s pantry” area.
What is a butler’s pantry?
So what, exactly, is a butler’s pantry?
“A butler’s pantry is pretty common. Basically an extra kitchen prep space,” Michele Walker, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Realtor.com, a website created by the National Association of Realtors, wrote in 2019 that a butler’s pantry isn’t as fancy as it sounds.
Historically, the spaces were used “to store (as well as to count and polish) the family silver, numerous sets of china, and large serving dishes like platters, tureens, and coffee urns.”
“Today, butler's pantries are located just off the kitchen or dining room and are used as staging areas for serving meals, and as a storage space. In a butler's pantry, you'll commonly find a countertop and cabinets for keeping serving pieces, tableware, wine glasses, table linens, candles, and other items for the dining room.”
Butler’s pantries were fairly common in middle-class houses from the 1920s, according to Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, a private nonprofit that aims to restore historic properties.
“You wouldn’t call it a butler’s pantry in 2020 because you don’t have a pantry. It’s the same thing you’d probably call a wet bar.”
Cunningham doesn’t have a butler, nor has he ever, campaign spokesman Aaron Simpson said.
Old Tillis comments
It’s debatable whether this tax credit program is for “the wealthy.” Of course, people who don’t have enough money to own a house wouldn’t qualify. At the same time, some who qualify might be middle-class. (We won’t even attempt to draw those lines.)
However, the Cunningham campaign pointed out that Tillis has praised historic tax credits in the past.
Although Tillis didn’t vote, he was speaker in 2011 when the state House voted to extend the tax credit for renovations to historic homes -- along with other tax provisions.
When the tax credit was left out of a state budget proposal in 2014, Tillis was speaker of the state House. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Tillis said the credits had shown a “well-documented return on investment.”
North Carolina offers credits for both residential properties, as well as commercial or what the state calls “income producing property.” Since the first credits were enacted back in 1998, they’ve promoted more than $3 billion in renovations to commercial and residential properties, Howard said.
Another article from 2014, this one in the Wilson Daily Times, quoted Tillis saying the historic tax credit had helped North Carolina. “That particular program has been a very positive thing for towns. It is a return on investment,” Tillis is quoted saying in the article. The Cunningham campaign provided a hard copy to PolitiFact.
Tillis said Cunningham “got a $40,000 tax incentive to update his butler’s pantry.”
That’s not as far off-base as his campaign’s press release or the NRSC ad, which exaggerate the facts. But they still need clarification.
The tax credit was for more than just the butler’s pantry. In Cunningham’s case, the term is used to reference a space in his kitchen -- not a closet used by an employee.
Tillis’ statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.