Friday, June 4, 2010

End 30 years of anti-tax rhetoric

In Wednesday's newspaper, a Doonesbury character, Havoc, tries to convince an Afghan warlord to stop making money from the Taliban through the drug trade, and suggests the warlord tax his people instead.

"Taxes!" Havoc says. "That's it -- taxes!"

But the warlord responds glumly: "I don't believe in them. Reagan changed my life."

I laughed because the comic strip so fit my frame of mind chasing down an interview with Carol Hedges, right, senior fiscal analyst for the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, an organization that recently raised a minor ruckus on the ColoradoBiz website where the institute posted a piece it titled: "Maybe Colorado's taxes aren't so taxing after all."

In a comment stream, one of the magazine's conservative readers questioned the politics of the institute as hardly non-partisan, as it described itself, and questioned the magazine for not "calling out" the group as a "liberal think tank."

I asked Hedges whether her group was liberal or not, and she said she had taught her children that labeling people was intellectually lazy. "Do they mean that the organization ... [believes] that we have to have a strong public sector in order to support the private-sector activities of the market? Well, if that's what they mean by liberal call me a liberal, rock on, that's who we are," she said.

"But what I find so interesting is that I was at a presentation recently and somebody said that in Colorado we have a broad political spectrum: We have the far right that doesn't believe in government, and we have the far left who believe that government is the solution for everything.

"And I stopped that person," Hedges said. She asked, "Who would that be? Who is that far left that thinks government is the solution to everything? ... I don't think there is an organization in Colorado that that would be descriptive of, and I know it isn't a label that would be descriptive of our organization."

The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute is a unit of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which describes itself as nonprofit and nonpartisan. The institute started about ten years ago, in Hedges' words, "to find justice and economic security for all Coloradans."

"We originally got started as a volunteer organization that was helping folks understand sort of the unique budget and fiscal constraints in Colorado, to help them do their advocacy work on behalf of families and economic justice, etc.," she said.

I was interested in the group after reading the ColoradoBiz piece because it seemed to be stating what is obvious to me but which never seems acceptable to conservative business interests in Colorado. Government services cost money, and people and businesses that pay taxes fund those operations, much like sales fund a business operation.

Taxes are the government's revenue stream; without them there would be no government. That's why the warlord's comment in the Doonesbury strip struck me as funny. Reagan was the American leader who turned the nation against being taxed for services government provides. Here's more from Hedges:

"We've had basically thirty years of anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric, which has been the predominant narrative in this country around how we support one another....

"We think that the public sector is important. We think it is the most efficient and accountable way to provide certain foundational services upon which people and businesses rely: education, transportation, higher education, to some extent health care. But we want a system, a public system, that is accountable, is effecient, is effective. We believe that the market economy can't work if we don't have a strong public partner to match up with the private sector."

"In Colorado," Hedges said, "our public officials are actually not the decision makers on this stuff. That's one of the most interesting things about Colorado, from my perspective. The decision makers on taxes are voters. And I think that the pendulum has swung so far on the anti-tax message, particularly as it relates to really large corporations, that voters are beginning to say: 'I do want higher ed, K-12, roads, clean air, clean water, access to the mountains when I want to get there. Is there somebody that's not paying their fair share?'"

"We're a think tank," Hedges said. "We do research, we do analysis.... As I said, it's been thirty years of anti-government rhetoric that we're combatting, and I think one of our big efforts ... is to help voters and to help citizens to connect up the benefits they get from private-sector and different public-sector investments.

"What did government do for you today? ... People don't think about things like: Well, they made sure my water was drinkable, and they inspected the restaurant where I grabbed my lunch to make sure everybody was concerned about my health. ... People generally don't think about government and education ... but it's what comes from your taxes."

That's the message Hedges' institute is going to be touting for the next year or so as Colorado voters try to dig themselves out of the fiscal hole the state has dug itself with tax-limiting state constitutional amendments like TABOR and three new proposed amendments that will go to voters in November. Hedges said her institute is not against TABOR, and would just as soon keep voters in charge of deciding how much they want to be taxed for government services.

"The real issue is," she said, "Are citizens willing to invest more in the public sector?"

Good roads, good schools and a good infrastructure for doing business in Colorado are the choices Colorado voters must address even beyond November elections. The state needs its voters and businesses to invest in themselves, to invest in Colorado. Its future is at stake.

1 comment:

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