Like seeds, ideas have a way of eventually bearing fruit. Sometimes palatable and other times not, ideas will bear fruit — or produce results. This point has definitely been on display in our state and here locally recently. Let’s start with the state.
As most know, Gov. Robert Bentley has painted a dire picture concerning the state’s finances. According to the governor, a massive budget shortfall in the hundreds of millions hangs over the state like the Sword of Damocles, and if not abated, massive cuts to state agencies and programs will soon fall. His solution: tax increases. Primarily in the form of increases in taxes on cigarettes and automobile purchases. He presented his financial prescription to the state legislature and challenged them to support him in his efforts to heal a perpetually fiscally ailing state.
A month into the 2015 legislative season, many legislators are treating the plan as though it’s been wrapped in the Ebola virus, and have not been very receptive to it. The repugnance to tax increases — any type of tax increase — among the majority of our legislators is real.
Locally, many of us were stunned (maybe naively) by the results of last week’s Baldwin County School tax referendum vote. I live in Mobile, so I, as the saying goes, have “no dog in this fight,” yet was quite taken aback by the utter rejection of not just the plan to raise revenue to fund future school expansion, but also the elimination of existing revenue flowing into the system.
The anathema to taxes was on high display. Even opponents of the referendum, are somewhat aghast at the fact the school system now faces the loss of close to $7 million per year due to the cessation, in October of 2016, of the four renewable mills that were also on the ballot. This is a fruit bearing they did not expect.
But, as I said, ideas produce results — they have consequences. One of the primary ideas that have flowered and grown in acceptance in this state, and throughout the South in particular, is that of a hatred toward taxes. Movements have sprung up and flourished, dedicated to the idea that adding any type of taxes is ruinous and even contrary to the intent of those who laid the foundation for this country. To oppose taxes, the thinking goes, is synonymous with liberty and freedom itself.
I’m definitely not here to advance the idea that taxes are welcoming and should always be sought, but I do question the efficacy and prudence of advocating never proposing or raising taxes.
It must be remembered that the rallying cry of the founding fathers and American colonists was not “No Taxes!” but “No Taxation without Representation!” The founding fathers were not against taxes, just against the idea the colonists were taxed without their input or consent. As men greatly influenced by Enlightenment thinking, they understood that implicit in the idea of the social contract was the government’s responsibility to carry out its functions for the good of society and the mutual prosperity of all. But it couldn’t be done without some form of taxes.
Indeed, one of the major weaknesses of the government immediately after the nation’s independence was the fact the central government had no power to levy or collect taxes. The founders soon realized that if not replaced, the Articles of Confederation would facilitate a quick end to the young nation. To be sure, taxes weren’t popular, but the framers knew they were needed.
Fast forward to the 21st century. America has a population of over 300 million as compared to the estimated 2.5 million in 1776. America went from being part of a colossal global British empire to being the preeminent superpower in the world today with a total economic output in 2014 of more than $17 trillion. At its birth the nation was small, rural and agrarian, now it’s large, urban, and economically complex and multi-faceted.
The central question now becomes: in this modern world, what type of ideas should predominate to facilitate the nation’s growth and advancement in a time when nations around the world are ascending economically and socially, many fueled by a belief in their governments’ ability to smartly procure, invest and direct resources to further their nation’s prosperity?
For America to compete on this increasingly competitive global stage, many are saying the wisest course of action is for political leaders on the local, state and national level to take pledges to never increase existing taxes or levy new ones. Political figures such as Ronald Reagan are deified due to their perceived steadfast adherence to this no tax orthodoxy. Yet, from 1980 to 1986 total U.S. government revenues increased from $517 billion to $769 billion. True, Reagan did not raise taxes per se, but he did raise “fees,” plug loopholes, tighten IRS enforcement, initiate “revenue enhancements” and “user fees” all to ingeniously increase the flow of monies to the federal treasury.
Is that a bad thing? Not at all. These measures allowed for the government to concomitantly increase spending during that period as well.
The point I’m trying to make is that smart governance is about being able to make choices, not in limiting the pool of choices that can be made. However, prevailing ideas seem to be setting us up for bleak outcomes instead of a bright and prosperous future.