Time to tone down the tax-pledge rhetoric

June 03, 2011|By Art Callaham

Let's talk taxes. My mom told me that the only two things that are certain are death and taxes.  

Many politicians nationwide have signed pledges to "not raise taxes" or for "no new taxes." I bet some even wanted to say "read my lips," and we all know how that worked out back in the 1980s and '90s. Heck, I voted for the guy. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush used that phrase at the 1988 National Republican Convention in his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for president. That year, he won.

Four years later, after President Bush implemented new taxes (or at least raised some existing ones), an upstart Democrat from Arkansas used those infamous words to block a Bush second term. A strong political statement — "read my lips, no new taxes" — but it is very tough to make good on such a promise.

I remember my second-grade teacher yelling at me: "If you don't sit down and shut up, I'm going to throw you out that window." Scary. Twenty years later, I went back to that second-grade classroom and looked at the window. It was about 36 inches by 48 inches, but was covered then, as it was 20 years earlier, by steel grillwork with 4-inch square openings.  Not even the smallest 7-year-old (and I wasn't one of them) would fit through those squares.

Like "read my lips" my teacher's "throw you out that window" pledge was a strong disciplinary statement, but one she could never enforce. However, to a second-grader, it sounded totally plausible.

Such is the way with much of the political rhetoric surrounding tax pledges. It sounds great, it's what the people want to hear (or don't want to hear), but it's virtually impossible to carry out. Particularly if you're in the minority party. Leading on issues such as taxes is a daunting task at best.

I've said before and it's worth saying again, I don't want my taxes raised any more than you do. I am not an advocate for higher or more taxes. I am, I like to believe, a practical person and I believe, just like my mother told me, that taxes (raised, restructured, lowered or expanded) are inevitable.

What I do want is for all of us to quit the "blame game." Whether it was Democrats or Republicans who got us into this economic mess really doesn't matter. Getting out of the mess does, and idle and hollow pledges are not the answer. Taxes on the other hand — new or old — are inevitably going to be part of any solution.

I believe that what most of us want, at least when we think about it at a level higher than a second-grader, is tax reform, tax restructuring or maybe just tax simplicity and equality. Regressive tax, progressive tax, flat-rate tax, need tax, use tax — that's far too complicated for this space.

From my simple perspective, if elected officials want to pledge something to me about taxes, then here is my list:

  1. Pledge to simplify all tax codes. No exemptions. No loopholes. That spells equality.
  2. Pledge that every eligible taxpayer, with no exclusions, pays some taxes. No one gets a free ride.
  3. Pledge that whoever pays a tax receives some benefit for the payment and that the taxing authority be required to continually explain the benefit in simple terms.  

If those same elected folks want to be really creative and capture my attention, then they should pledge to work "across the aisle" with all other elected folks to determine what government does with the taxes. Sure, what I have outlined is virtually impossible to implement in its entirety. In some ways, I am just as guilty as the "political pledgers." But some of it can be implemented.  

For many of us today, taxes — particularly higher or new ones — feel like being thrown out of a window might feel to a second-grader. Scary. So, elected officials, scare us with some fresh ideas on revamping taxes and justifying how tax money is spent. And, finally, scare us to death by actually working together, not blaming each other.

Art Callaham is a local community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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