In my part of the country there’s a strongly held belief that lowering taxes is always a good thing. It’s attributed to the Western ethos of rugged individualism, suspicion of the federal government, distrust of anyone on the other side of the Cascades, all wrapped in a conservative blanket. It’s unclear what conservative means, but lower taxes always have something to do with it.
The lower tax mythology is one reason Washington doesn’t have an income tax. There’s a treasured illusion that folks get to keep what they earn. The government isn’t stealing it. On the other hand, there’s a demand for quality public services, so Washington has a complicated tax structure of sales and business taxes hidden in the price of things. Add to them the usual property taxes with an added menu of special levies for various special needs: education, emergency medical services, fire, mental health care, affordable housing, etc. Every community is different, and so are their tax structures.
Put it all together and Washington is about in the middle when compared to tax burdens in other states. The most recent ranking I can find from the Tax Foundation shows Washington’s over all 2012 state and local tax burden of 9.3% (on average) was #28 among all states. Anderson Economics lists the 2016 Washington business tax burden at an average of 9.2% ranking it #27. It may be a sloppy system, but fitting in the middle is not a bad place to be.
The disconnect comes with the inability of voters to understand taxes as investment in current and future quality of life. It’s an inability with consequences. Infrastructure installed years ago, sometimes on the cheap, followed by years of deferred maintenance, have meant system failures requiring the enormous cost of reconstruction. There are the usual letters to the local paper and coffee conversations complaining that “they” didn’t do the job right the first time. But is there a willingness to invest now for the future? No more than there was in previous generations.
As a friend said when a state wide initiative was proposed a few years ago, “It’s a tax cut, who wouldn’t want a tax cut? It’s a no brainer.” In another conversation about specific dollars for specific projects, it was claimed that local government didn’t need more money; it was just a question of better allocation of what they already had. Another asserted that projects could be completed for 10 to 20% of estimated costs because, outside his own life, he had little understanding of the current cost of things. Yet another demanded to know why millions were being spent on planning? Why not just build it? Building it where, according to what specifications?, was met with a blank stare.
Undergirding it all is the old bugaboo of distaste for lazy people being coddled by the social services of a nanny state. It’s a way of thinking built on belief in personal responsibility that gets by with what it has, doesn’t rely on government handouts, and expects others to do the same. It’s not a bad belief. It has merit. But it can’t stand by itself.
Today’s Intermountain West would not exist without massive public sector investment. Its foundational infrastructure includes dams, rural electrification, railroads, highways, military bases, airports, and coastal ports, all financed by government investment underwritten with broadly levied taxes. It remains economically viable thanks in part to farm subsidies, and subsidies for river transportation, highway maintenance, cheap electricity, and systems for educating our youth. All of them are made possible through taxation.
Understanding taxes as investments isn’t easy to sell. Too many years have been consumed selling the idea that the government is stealing your money, money you could spend more wisely on your own, and for what? For socialist welfare programs making life comfortable for lazy people. Overcoming that momentum is difficult. So I was heartened when a local candidate for the state legislature said she is “pro tax, not anti tax” because she believes taxes are investments in quality of life. There is hope.