Conventional wisdom says conservatives detest them, liberals salivate over them and the average taxpayer these days seems most often to simply feel as though they’ve been turned upside down in the streets and shaken thoroughly until there’s nothing left in their pockets but lint.
From the gridlocked halls of Congress to the veto-proof Republican supermajorities in the Missouri General Assembly, no single issue so dominates our national discourse as does the questions of how and at what rate we, the people, will levy taxes in support of government institutions and services.
Each year the Tax Foundation, a non-profit think tank, uses an average of combined federal, state and local taxes to calculate Tax Freedom Day, which represents how long the average American works to satisfy their tax obligations.
For 2013, that day will be April 18 nationally, five days later than it was last year, but well short of a highpoint of May 1, 2000.
Here in Missouri, where lawmakers are eyeing a tax system similar to one enacted in Kansas that would lower income and corporate taxes and increase state sales tax, that day will pass without a parade on Sunday. By comparison, Missouri has the 42nd earliest day, but is beaten out by April 1 for Louisiana and Mississippi, but nearly a month better than our fellow citizens in Connecticut, who won’t stop working for the man until May 5.
By the Tax Foundation’s figures, the average American pays about 30 percent of their income in taxes, with that burden spread out across income levels — an average of 19 percent for those making around $13,500 a year, and topping out at 33 percent for those making an average top 1 percent annual income of $1.4 million.
From my ringside seat to the discussions, meetings, public forums and elections that ultimately lead to local tax initiatives, it is clear that public officials sense a wall of voter antipathy towards even the suggestion of a sales or property tax levy increase.
That is likely wise politics, and if the famous (or infamous) Grover Norquist tax pledge and the espoused low-tax philosophy of state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon are any indication, that is the politics that rules the day. Ask any Sedalia District 200 representative about the multiple ballot issues it took before the new high school was finally approved and they are likely to validate this fear of taxpayer revolt.
However, as I sat in the Pettis County Commission chambers on election night, conventional wisdom and the politics of the day were challenged by the broad smile that spread across the face of Pam Hunter, director of the Sedalia Public Library, as final results came in on the library tax with 61 percent approval.
I expect similar reactions were had by La Monte R-IV School District officials, whose no-increase levy extension sailed through with 83 percent support, and by their colleagues in Knob Noster who saw their levy increase meet with 72 percent approval.
In fact, according to a less-than-enthused post-election press release from the definitively anti-tax organization Americans for Prosperity-Missouri, of the 283 county and municipal tax initiatives voted on by Missouri voters on April 2, 204 passed, 65 failed and two ended in a tie. In other words, Missourians collectively approved new taxes in 72 percent of contests.
While turnout in Pettis County barely broke 10 percent, that level of approval suggests that most Missourians are either willing to shoulder additional tax burdens if presented with well-reasoned proposals and sound stewardship or, for conservative and libertarian voters, the potential added burden is usually not enough of a motivator to drive them to the polls en masse in order to guarantee a defeat.
As our nation and our state move forward with discussions over how much is too much and how to grapple with ballooning entitlements and skyrocketing debt, it might be a good time to ask ourselves if the rhetoric of the politics of the day truly represents our attitudes toward who should pay, what they should pay and what kind of return on our investment we see from our tax dollars.
As detestable as taxes may be, fuel taxes pay for the pavement, property taxes educate our children, and, with last year’s approval of the Pettis County Ambulance District, sales taxes now fund all of our public safety entities.
Deciding what is fair and whether April 18 is too hot, too cold or just right is really a discussion about what kind of civilization we want to be and how much we are willing to pay to support it.
If these election results are any indication, Missourians may be more willing to pay a little more for the trappings of first-world living than lawmakers give them credit for and may be less interested in strict low- or no-tax polices than many lawmakers are willing to concede.
Happy Tax Freedom Day, everybody.