Sunday, January 2, 2011

What we have here is a failure to communicate

By Bill Kraus

Taxes have been a free-standing issue in our politics ever since George Bush 1 made his famous “read my lips” pronouncement in 1988.

Ever since then the political dialogue has disconnected the hated taxes from what they should be used for and at what spending level.

Listening to talk about taxes gives the impression that they are something onerous assessed by politicians for their own unspecified reasons or amusement.

To a very large extent this stupid non-dialogue is rooted in the failure of elected incumbents to communicate simply and lucidly about what the money is for (always debatable) and whether the spending level for what it is for is (a.) proper and (b.) affordable (really debatable).

The way to get a proper dialogue going is to re-connect taxing and spending.

At some level this is automatic. Gas taxes are for roads unless they are misappropriated. Most of the taxes described as fees pay for regulators and regulations in, say, insurance, real estate and the like.

The best tax-spending illustration of the value of linkage and the easiest to articulate is the property tax. In at least one state the property tax bill comes with a detailed itemization of where the money goes right down to specifics like how much goes to police and fire departments. Every taxpayer knows where every dollar goes and how many dollars go to every item.

There is no income tax bill, so itemization isn't possible before the tax has been calculated. It is still possible to itemize the planned disbursement of where the income taxes will go when paid. Once again the itemization can and should be detailed. This will have to be expressed in percentages not dollars, but that would work.

The tax form can include an addendum which shows the percentages of taxes paid that go to the various programs and beneficiaries of the public largesse. It may even include an easy way to tell the taxpayer that $20 of every $100 sent in will go to pay for, say, incarcerating the people our courts (which are funded with about 1 of every 100 income tax dollars) consider too dangerous to be walking the streets of our state.

The sales tax collections are not and cannot be accumulated, but it can be made clear that the nickels collected by retailers will be disbursed on the same formula that income taxes are.

You get the idea.

Connect taxing and spending.

Debate the legitimacy of the appropriations' beneficiaries and the amount of funding appropriated.

This gives an informed citizenry more to do than simply complain about taxes. They become part of the broader discussion which I think is what the founding fathers had in mind.

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