Sanity And Taxes

A couple of weeks ago, fifty-five assorted residents of Indianapolis boarded a chartered bus and headed to Washington, D.C. for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “Rally for Sanity.”  It was a pretty diverse group—college students and retirees, black and white, varying religions and political parties—but we all wanted to demonstrate that the cable shouters, insult-throwers and nasty political ads dominating the airwaves don’t represent most Americans.

There were plenty of clever signs on display, but two more serious ones summed up what I think was the “message” of the Rally. One said “Turn Your Caps-Lock Off!” And the other read, “I pay taxes because I’m an adult and that’s the way it works.”

Ah, taxes. We have just emerged from an election season that was high on heat and low on light. Candidates of both parties were on my television—with their “caps-locks” on—promising to deliver services and balance budgets while cutting—or at least not raising—taxes. (On those rare occasions when a reporter challenged a candidate to identify what cuts he would make to accomplish this miracle, the lack of response was revealing.)

Here in Indiana, voters overwhelmingly agreed to place property tax caps in the state constitution, despite the fact that the negative consequences of the statutory caps are already being felt. The political golden rule—“He who has the gold, rules”—has shifted spending authority to the state, and made it much more difficult for local governments to deliver even basic services.

Mayors are desperate. They have fewer resources with which to meet the demands of citizens who want their public services improved, but who don’t want to pay for them.

Some—like Mayor Ballard—resort to gimmicks like the proposed contract with ACS to take over the city’s parking meters for fifty years. In return for giving away significant future revenues, the city will get some up-front money; more important, it will contract away its responsibility for deciding whether and when to raise parking fees.

Stripped of all the fancy rhetoric, this is best understood as a deal to outsource the taxing power. That is what the state did with the Toll Road. Recognizing that the legislature lacked the political will to raise tolls, the Daniels Administration “sold” the right to do so. That is also what motivated the sale of the Water Company to Citizens Gas; ratepayers essentially will be “taxed” in order to recover the up-front payment that is being used to pave streets and repair sidewalks.

Citizens, as a public trust, may prove to be a more prudent operator than the city. The parking proposal has no obvious merits and many obvious drawbacks. But good deals or bad, this is not the way adults make decisions.  Eventually, services must be paid for. That doesn’t mean we cannot deliberate over the proper type of tax, or who should pay it, or how high it needs to be. But games cost more than taxes in the long run.

Adults know that.