Wrong Way

The Rulers, “Wrong Em Boyo” (click to listen or download).

On and around April 15, “Tax Day,” you always expect to hear destructive messages from the likes of those now in the teabag crowd.   Unfortunately, we are now hearing  them from “liberals” and Democrats also.  What is wrong with these people?

Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”  This truth seems to be lost as Democrats and Republicans rush to assume the anti-tax mantle.

First up is all-but-certain Wisconsin Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Tom Barrett.  In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report this week, he joined the leading Republican candidates in vowing not to raise taxes in his first biennial budget.  To Barrett’s credit, unlike the leading Republicans Scott Walker and Mark Neumann he did limit his pledge to the first biennium and said it would be “unrealistic to cut taxes now given the giant budget hole expected to face the next governor.”  Offsetting that credit are a clear pledge of no increases in shared revenue for local governmental units  (I assume that includes schools) and  vague statements about more “efficiencies.”  It is hard to say if  Barrett’s equally vague statements about tax credits targeted to to job creation and eventual property tax cuts are positive nor negative;  the devil is in the details.

Leading “liberal” blogger Jay “Folkbum” Bullock jumped on the “taxes are bad” bandwagon with a post titled “On Tax Day, thank Democrats for your lower tax bills.” In the same vein was an email from state Democratic Chair Mike “With this [2009-11] budget package, Democrats have strengthened K-12…education” Tate.  Like Bullock, Tate boasts that  “With Democrats in full control of government, Wisconsin’s tax ranking has improved for the first time in decades.”

One thing missing from this formulation are the increases in property taxes.

In a larger sense what is missing is the willingness to make a positive case for government programs and the taxes that pay for them.   Barrett, Bullock and Tate all cede the ground to the anti-tax crowd.  They begin by assuming taxes are bad and that cutting taxes is good.  With this as your starting point it becomes necessary and difficult to continually justify every expenditure and revenue source.  It is a constant game of defense with victory defined as not giving up too much ground, not cutting too many programs and services.  Progress is a thing of the past — the pending changes to the SAGE program are a perfect example.

The other mistaken assumption of this formulation is that current revenue policies are superior to any changes other than tax cuts.  This is just silly.  Tax codes are not divinely inspired, they are the product of years of messy legislative log rolling, horse trading and sausage making.  There is plenty of room for improvement, involving increasing some taxes and cutting others (see the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future/Wisconsin Council on Children and Families Catalog of Tax Reform Options for Wisconsin).

In fact, some limited improvements were made in the last state biennial budget, including closing the Las Vegas loophole, increasing income taxes on the top 1% of earners and improving the homestead credit.   Is it too much to ask that these be included in statements of the Democrats’ tax related accomplishments?

I want elected officials, political leaders and pundits who are willing to fully embrace the work of revenue reform.   Making the case for the good government does and can do isn’t that hard and is essential;  reforming revenue policies is harder but not impossible.  With each and every statement like those of Barrett, Bullock and Tate, it gets even harder.   They are heading the wrong way, but we don’t have to follow.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under Budget, Elections, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Wrong Way

  1. Kristen Nelson

    Thanks TJ. Can you shed some light on the pending Sage changes? (in your spare time….)

    I was watching the school board meeting on Monday and I was having trouble figuring out if it was a district issue or a state legislature issue or a federal mandate issue – or a combination of the three?

    It wasn’t part of the initial four tiers of MMSD cuts, correct? Or did I miss that?

  2. Kristen

    I’ve been meaning to post on this, but haven’t found the time.

    The proposal is to raise SAGE class sizes to 18. It is part of a series of band-aids in a package from the Rural Caucus. Most of them are fine, but they are pretty minor. Tom Beebe from WAES made that point in his testimony at the Assembly Education hearing. (full hearing video here). The bill itself is here; the press release on the Rural Caucus package is here; and there are news stories here and here and here.

    Most of the package is fine, too little, but fine. I have mixed feelings about the SAGE part. Many districts are faced with the prospect of giving up SAGE all together (as Madison gave up fully locally funded class size reductions a few years ago). 18 is better than 22. For more on the economics of SAGE as an underfunded program, see these this post: SAGE Thoughts.

    The research on class size doesn’t make a big distinction between 15 and 18, but experience and common sense tell me that whatever the test score correlations, the quality of the educational experience is more likely to be higher in a smaller class. A bunch of links to research: Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know?; For African-American Students, Class Size Matters; The Benefits of Small Class Sizes.

    It wasn’t in the MMSD Budget Options because it wasn’t on their radar.

    As I said in the post, this is part of the “we’d rather lower our ambitions than raise taxes” mentality that is destroying so many good things.

  3. Jay Bullock has a reaction to this post up. I too don’t want to get in a spitting contest over liberal cred or even who misunderstood or mischaracterized who more. I value Jay Bullock’s contributions immensely. You can read his reaction and my responses at the link.

    I do want to expand on one point from my response because it is kind of hard to explain and probably hard to understand. I wrote: “The quotes weren’t meant as sarcasm, I just didn’t want to give you a designation that you hadn’t given yourself and the quotes were a sloppy way of getting around that. Sorry that they were open to misinterpretation (reading it I can see how this happened). ”

    As I was drafting the post, I wasn’t sure how to describe Jay Bullock. I was in a hurry and figured that at some point someone must have called him a “liberal.” With that in mind it seemed safe to put “liberal” in quotes as a description. There was no more to it. I didn’t think of the possible implied sarcasm at all. It was sloppy not to have thought of that.

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