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Our Views: The tax dilemma

Giving governments more money doesn’t sit well, but sometimes it really is justified

POSTED: June 17, 2012 1:00 a.m.

This may seem like heresy to many (tea partyers, cover your eyes), but there are occasions when government needs more money. Shocking yes, but true.

In an era when “tax” has become a four-letter word and the idea of raising them leads most conservatives to draw their swords, it is time for a dose of reality.

Taxes are, as always, a front-and-center issue in an election year. So it’s a good time to get a grip on what is a reasonable amount to pay to operate governments.

The debate over taxes already is a key issue in the presidential race. President Barack Obama has pushed for wealthier Americans to pay what he calls “their fair share,” though it’s clear most already pay that and more. Economic wisdom shows that when businesses and job creators are taxed more, it depresses growth, a key reason our economy remains stagnant. And much of that tax burden is passed down to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services.

When it comes to excessive spending, nobody can top Washington, D.C. Congresses and White House administrations have conspired to run up a trillion-dollar debt that we’ll be paying for generations to come. That’s why throwing more of our hard-earned money down that rabbit hole for those drunken sailors to spend is indeed galling to most Americans.

The tax issue looms over the 9th District U.S. House race. Martha Zoller, backed by anti-tax tea party groups, is slamming state Rep. Doug Collins for his 2010 support of a tax increase on hospital revenue, a plan that was backed by the Republican governor and leaders at the Capitol. That bill was later blended into another that actually cut taxes for many Georgians.

Collins counters that the give-and-take of legislation is part of the process, and voting “yes” on such a bill doesn’t make one pro-tax. But in an era when any call for tax increases is met with torches and pitchforks, such accusations are expected.

And federal spending aside, not all tax hikes at the state and local levels are bogus. Common sense dictates that we examine each on its merit, and as with any wise financial decision, determine whether the benefits are worth the expense.

During the recent economic downturn, some Georgia counties have been forced to raise taxes to dig themselves out of the fiscal doghouse. Hall County has able to avoid such a move, though Gainesville reluctantly approved a millage rate roll-up to balance its budget in the face of decreasing revenues. Schools, in particular, have struggled to maintain a high level of instruction while cutting expenses and increasing class sizes.

Balancing local budgets is a tough chore. The drop in property values has led to lower tax revenues while governments at higher levels are sending less down the line (federal to state, state to county), increasing the shortfall. In some cases, fees have been raised to offset revenue losses, a move some equate to a tax hike by another name.

Unlike the spendthrifts in Washington, local governments can only cut so much without residents feeling the pinch. Severe budget restrictions lead to salary reductions, furloughs and lost jobs for city and county workers. That means less money being circulated through area businesses, bad news for everyone who feeds off the local economy.

Keep in mind local leaders aren’t wild-eyed liberal spenders but fiscal conservatives who, once in office, must deal with the reality they are handed.

Some among us oppose growth of any kind and would gladly throw a gate up at the county line. But trying to choke off progress only leads to decay. Those who advocate cutting quality-of-life amenities such as parks and libraries fail to see how they benefit a community trying to lure new jobs. Controlling growth with the right blend of revenue and spending can keep a community prosperous and safe.

That’s why many support the transportation sales tax that Georgians will decide regionally in the July 31 primary. Many others oppose the 1 percent levy for various reasons. We’ll get into that issue more in the weeks to come.

Because he supports the roads tax, Gov. Nathan Deal is painted by anti-tax legions as ignoring his promise not to raise them. Yet allowing voters to make a decision on taxing themselves is not the same as supporting a legislatively mandated tax increase.

These same ideologues now ask all candidates to sign a pledge not to raise taxes, for any reason, once in office. Never mind that a war, natural disaster or other catastrophe could make such an expense necessary. To them, no tax hike is ever valid.

This view is short-sighted and potentially dangerous. It’s understandable, to a point, why many feel this way. Tea party followers believe government has ignored their needs and favored special interests at the expense of taxpayers. We pay and pay yet get little in return, it seems, so the mantra becomes to stop paying, period.

We agree it is well past time for governments to live within their means by spending our money wisely and efficiently. But that also means we must do our part and address key public needs with a willingness to share the burden equitably when more tax revenue is justified.

Raising taxes always should be a last resort. But after four years of recession, job losses, housing declines and lost revenue, that option may be all that is left for some local governments.

If and when that day comes, let’s keep an open mind and not resort to the knee-jerk idea that funding government needs is someone else’s problem.


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