In Red states like Indiana, legislators and business interests routinely spout–and clearly believe–a lot of persistent claptrap about taxes. Taxes are bad. They should be minimized whenever possible. They may be–like death–unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do whatever we can to avoid them.
Are there problems with this reflexive approach? Let me count the ways….
Being indiscriminately anti-tax is probably the most fundamental error in today’s political discourse. To state the obvious, governments need resources if they are to provide the services we demand. The proper way to approach any system of taxation is to ask, first of all, whether We the People are getting our money’s worth. Are we getting value for the dues we pay to live in a civilized society?
When people who can afford it decide to join a country club, they evaluate the appropriateness of the dues they will pay by considering the benefits of membership. When my husband and I decided to take the cruise we are currently enjoying, we focused on what was included in the (considerable) fare being charged. Yet, when it comes to taxes, people rarely focus on the variety and appropriateness of what our dollars are buying.
The proper questions are: how are public services being delivered? Are tax dollars being wasted on services we don’t need government to provide? In the alternative, is the failure of government to provide a particular service costing individuals far more than a collective approach would cost them? (Health insurance comes to mind…) Is there credible evidence of corruption or inefficiency we need to address?
Beyond that fundamental issue of value for our tax dollars, discussions of tax policy need to focus on the fairness and transparency of the system. The question shouldn’t be whether to impose, raise or lower taxes–the question should be how. What are the pros and cons of property taxes versus income taxes? What is the difference between a justifiable tax incentive and a politically-dubious loophole?
It is so much easier for politicians to rail against taxes and tax rates than to get “down in the weeds” of tax policy.
What triggered the foregoing diatribe was a recent commentary in the Capital Chronicle that focused on revelations from a recent hearing of the General Assembly’s State & Local Tax Review Task Force. The hearing was held to consider proposals (floated by legislators and at least one candidate for Governor) to replace the state’s personal income tax.
Testimony at the hearing pointed to the considerable downsides of that proposal–it turns out that, among other problems, eliminating state income taxes would put a greater burden on the Hoosiers who already pay the largest share of their income in taxes.
But national experts also laid out a framework that would give Indiana’s lawmakers the opportunity to rethink how the state’s tax and budget structure can unlock Indiana’s true economic potential and allow all Hoosiers to thrive.
Some of the testimony presented to the Task Force was truly jaw-dropping. For example, The Tax Foundation testified that at 7%, Indiana’s sales tax rate is tied for second-highest in the nation (behind only California), and that it is “definitely not possible” to properly eliminate or replace the individual income tax.
Furthermore, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) demonstrated that not only do lower-income Hoosiers currently pay nearly twice the proportion (12.8%) of their incomes in state and local taxes compared to the wealthiest households (6.8%), but that Indiana already has the 12th-most regressive state tax structure in the country.
ITEP also showed that eliminating the state income tax would provide a windfall of $33,964 for the top 1% of earners, but a mere $203 for the bottom 20% of Hoosier earners. Likewise, replacing half of the income tax with a 9.5% sales tax would still gift $29,507 to the wealthiest while causing a net $62 tax *hike* for 1 in 5 Hoosier families.
Legislators like to characterize a low tax rate as a magnet, insisting it will draw people and jobs to the state. But as the commentary notes,”Indiana’s tax system isn’t making the state competitive even in the Midwest, where Indiana is worse than average in the region for real median wages, unemployment rate, poverty, and low wage jobs throughout the economic recovery of the past three years.”
And women sure aren’t moving here for reproductive health care…
Again, the issue isn’t cost; it’s what value are we getting for our dollars?
As the commentary notes, Indiana could fully fund affordable housing programs, universal child care, and tuition-free technical education–all for less than the revenue that would be lost from the proposed, lopsided tax cuts.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather pay dues to the club that keeps the roof repaired and the chef paid…