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