Possibly the most ignorant statement made by anyone seeking political office is the campaign “pledge” to not raise taxes. That one is followed closely by the winner of whatever the office in question, who makes the equally false claim he/she “didn’t raise taxes.” Only proves in both cases the statement maker is either lying or – well – lying.
Like it or not, government operations from city hall to congress – and everywhere in between – are paid for by levying taxes on the governed. That’s how it works. The only variance is who levies what and on whom.
The other given in this tale is that government does have costs. More often than not legitimate ones arising from the furnishing of services which we require and/or expect. That leaves the only room for argument (a) what services and (b) who pays how much at which point in the tax food chain.
In the late 1960′s, Idaho had a one-term Republican governor. While being an all-round nice guy, the most forgiving way to sum up his approach to government and governance would be that he was “challenged.” Very “challenged.” His previous state senate years – coupled with four more as governor – did nothing to help him understand the requirements of governing or the nuances of politics. He left office as ignorant as he came in. But he WAS a nice guy.
At the start of his first year in the state senate, he wanted to be on the Finance Committee – a plum job not usually open to freshmen. So he made what he thought was his best selling point to those doing the appointing. He would never “NEVER” vote for a tax increase – no matter what.
“Great,” you say. “Politically naive,” you say. “Lack of experience showing,” you say. “So what,” you ask? All true. And here’s the “what.”
Each level of government with taxing authority is legally bound to use that power to fulfill requirements charged by law – schools, roads and bridges, law enforcement, airport operations, water and sewer plants, health and welfare programs and the like. Often in the past, funding was acquired from other sources i.e. federal to state to county to municipal, in which case government acts as an agent.
Taxing authority is used to fund obligations. So, when one level of government doesn’t pay all the bills, those obligations will fall to someone else for payment. The obligation remains. And someone – somewhere – has to pay. Often fees are charged – or raised – to make up for lack in tax support. You and I pay more but – wait for it – nobody raised those pesky taxes. Stupid promise made. Stupid promise kept. And who lost? Again.
All of this is being played out in our Northwest neighborhood at the moment in public education. For years, school districts have used a tool called a “supplemental” levy to pick up slack when faced with an unmet need. An operating budget is created. But maybe the district has several buildings falling apart or needs more equipment or teachers than planned. Any sort of legitimate need that can’t be budgeted within existing income. For years, districts have taken those situations to local voters in “supplemental” elections to raise cash over periods of several years. And voters have been pretty supportive by coming up with the extra bucks. But we may be approaching a crisis point.
In our Northwest, for example, many school districts already receive supplemental funding from previous pleas to patrons. But local property taxes – or state and other sources – make up much of the base of regular operational income. With declining real estate values, less corporate taxes and – where it exists – reduced sales tax income, districts have essentially incorporated a lot of previous supplemental levies into established budgets. Now, with still more reductions in tax revenues – local, state or federal – districts are beating the bushes for new – wait for it – supplementals or trying to renew those expiring.
Most voter overrides are legitimately based on emergencies. But some – and we are seeing more of these – are because the level of government a step or two above has not had resources to fill all the needs below. Or, in some cases, states have diverted dollars into savings – or “rainy day” – accounts or given tax breaks to one or more favored groups. But the tax obligations remain.
I’ve had two members of the Oregon legislature tell me they voted against tax increases this year. They speak as though that’s a badge of courage. I’m supposed to tell them how grateful I am. Well, it’s not and I’m not. Nor am I proud of them, either. In our little troubled vale of some 21,000 people, the school board may have to close one or two elementary schools, fire still more teachers and create classrooms of 35-40 students without new supplemental dollars. Which patrons may not approve..
Our community college recently asked for what amounted to a supplemental levy for some very legitimate reasons. Voters said “NO” overwhelmingly. Two nearby school districts have severe problems if voters in our very high unemployment area won’t say “yes” at the polls. Our library district is on life-support and needs immediate help. Surrounding counties are in the same condition. Curry County would like to have voters approve a 3% local sales tax before it declares bankruptcy. No chance..
That long-ago Idaho governor was my first experience with the tragic mindset of a politician determined to own a horse without feeding it. Unfortunately, others have survived him beyond the grave. The charge to those who want the perks and “atta boys” of public service is to recognize legitimate needs within the area they are lawfully charged to serve and come up with a comprehensive plan for dealing with them. Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody said just any old person could do it. But the law – and certainly the ethical responsibility – are what they are.
The public office deadbeat who ignores both and tries to be the good guy by “not raising taxes” violates both.