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West Virginians must work together to revise tax code

July 07, 2006

They came to Charleston, W.Va., this week, a band of more than 20 groups whose representatives delivered two pleas - one to state government and the other to the Mountain State's wealthier citizens.

The groups were there to urge Gov. Joe Manchin not to forget the state's neediest citizens in his quest to make the state's tax system more business-friendly.

That's a worthy aim, but putting together a proposal that does both will require wisdom and a willingness to compromise.

Manchin signaled he was ready for a new era in his State of the State speech in January. At that time, Manchin revealed that he had done a five-year projection of the state's revenues and expenditures.

It was a break with the seat-of-the-pants style of the past, Manchin said, adding that it would help the state's effort to attract high-tech companies and other firms to provide good-paying jobs.

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That would be good news even for those who don't get such jobs, because, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

If the state's economy improves, then there should be more jobs of all kinds. Some positions will open up because they'll be vacated by those seeking a high-tech future.

Others will be created in companies that serve high-tech industries and by the retailers that offer goods to those higher-paid employees.

On the other side of this argument are people such as the Rev. Dennis Sparks, executive director of the state's Council of Churches.

The Rev. Sparks was present at the State of the State event, where he accepted the governor's thanks for the council's willingness to administer an account for the families of 12 miners killed just weeks before.

This time the message of the preacher and his colleagues was that West Virginia's low-income residents pay 9.7 percent of their earnings in state and local taxes. Many of the state's wealthiest residents pay only 8.7 percent of their income for the same taxes.

The Associated Press reports that the groups are aware that cutting taxes might reduce revenues for vital state services.

To replace those funds, they propose higher taxes on cigarettes, retention of the state's estate tax and increasing taxes on those with higher incomes.

In arguing for that last measure, the Rev. Sparks cited the New Testament story of Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector who had climbed a tree to watch Jesus preach.

Seeing him there, Jesus called him down and the tax collector gave half his possessions to the poor.

"We need to ask Zacchaeus to come down from the tree for low-income West Virginians," Sparks said.

If that request seems odd, it is because we seldom hear anyone ask citizens to voluntarily sacrifice for the common good. Appeals for higher taxes often imply that wealthier citizens accumulated their wealth at the expense of the less fortunate, as opposed to working hard and innovating.

How the state's tax code will be rewritten is unknown now. But we like the Rev. Sparks' idea of asking citizens of means to help, rather than demanding their dollars and insulting them in the process.

West Virginia will make progress as long as all of its citizens remember that prosperity does not require that one group lose for everyone to win.

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