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Paying Our Dues
Written July 25, 2014

 

I was rather Republican as a little boy, having come from a farming region that distrusted powerful labor leaders like John L. Lewis and Jimmy Hoffa.  But today’s GOP has gradually driven me leftward, with their NRA-led worship of guns and their intolerance on sexual issues and their efforts to require this land of freedom to be a wholly Christian nation.

They also refuse to raise the money required to fix problems:  social, economic, and environmental.  However, as one on-line commenter put it, believing you don’t need tax revenue to pay for things is magical thinking, and magical thinking doesn’t work.

So when I hear a negative political ad from a Republican candidate nowadays, my reaction is often opposite to what the candidate intended.

When Republican T accuses Republican M of being “not conservative enough,” to me that’s a point in Republican M’s favor.  And when he accuses Democrat O of being “an extreme liberal” or “a socialist,” I assume he’s exaggerating greatly, and my opinion of Democrat O is not diminished.

When Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, Republican T considered her a witch.  He accused almost every Democratic Representative of voting her way on almost every issue.  Of course they did.  They ought to have done so.  Pelosi is their party leader.  What did he expect those Democrats to do, turn their back on their party and their principles to follow the Bush agenda? 

Now in 2014, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, is running for re-election to a second term.  But he’s trailing badly in the polls.  He’s roughly 20 points behind his challenger, Tom Wolf, a Democrat.  It’s time to bring out the attack ads.

Once again, most of the accusations Corbett’s ad makes against Wolf — negative points, in Corbett’s opinion — sound like positive points to me.

First, because this is Wolf’s first run for elective office, the announcer questions how much we really know about him.  He did hold an appointed position in the previous governor’s administration.  In shocked tones, the announcer asks, “Did you know he was Pennsylvania’s Revenue Secretary?!”

What a scoundrel!  Of course, “revenue” is an obscenity to right-wing Pharisees.  Some people have always considered it sinful to take tax money from citizens, even if the money goes to worthy projects.

Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners.  But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?"

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: “I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else.  For I don't cheat, I don't sin, and I don't commit adultery.  I'm certainly not like that tax collector!”

Matthew 9:10-11 and Luke 18:11 (New Living Translation)

To me, however, the fact that Wolf served as Revenue Secretary is a point in his favor.  He’s not a newcomer to state government.  He’s actually held a responsible position in the executive branch.

The commercial continues, “Wolf says he’ll raise the income tax on many hard-working Pennsylvanians.”  (In ad-speak, of course, all of you voters are hard-working.)

The ad is alluding to Wolf’s recommendation of “a progressive, rather than flat, state tax.  A progressive tax involves a sliding rate scale that taxes higher incomes more and lower incomes less.  A flat tax, on the other hand, assigns each citizen the same rate regardless of income.  The federal income tax is progressive while the state income tax is flat.”

To me, that’s another point in Wolf’s favor.  The flat 3.07% we all pay here is unfair to our poorer citizens.  They should be allowed to pay less, while higher-income citizens like myself should be asked to pay more.  The people of the Commonwealth need the money, and fortunate folks like me can afford it.

Because I’m not paying my fair share at 3.07%, I’ve been contributing to certain non-profit organizations.  They’re taking up some of the slack by doing what government is too parsimonious to do.  These organizations range from my local volunteer firemen to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. 


As a young man, I lived in Ohio, where voter approval was required in many cases before a local government could raise money by taxing real estate.

Each property tax levy expired after a few years, and then the municipality had to go back to the voters for a renewal.  Or, when the municipality needed to borrow money for infrastructure improvements, they first needed voter approval to issue the bonds.

I always voted “yes” to these ballot questions.  I admit that because I didn’t own real estate, the money wasn’t going to come out of my pocket.  But if we didn’t approve a renewal of the operating levy, the government couldn’t operate.

This actually happened in 1976, after I had moved to Pennsylvania.  Many residents in my old hometown had lost confidence in the school district and were refusing to fund it.  Teachers and other employees were laid off.  In the November 2 election, the district made one last attempt to win approval of its levy.  The voters said “no.”  The district was broke, and by the end of the week they had to shut down the school for the rest of the year.

Here in Pennsylvania, government operations don’t depend on voter referenda.  Instead, we have taxation through representation.  Revenue decisions are made by elected officials, from school boards to the state legislature.

But of course politicians are reluctant to vote for rate hikes.  This is especially true of Republican politicians, many of whom have sworn Grover Nyquist’s oath:  “I pledge to the taxpayers ... that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”

I oppose this pledge.

First, a lawmaker shouldn’t declare how he’s going to vote before even considering the merits of the particular issue.  To get elected, he’s sold his vote in advance to the Tea Party.  It’s like an opponent of the death penalty pledging never to take another’s life and vowing that if he’s ever on a jury considering a capital offense, he will stubbornly refuse to convict, regardless of the evidence.

Second, taxes are not evil.  Linguist George Lakoff is quoted here:

Conservatives have worked for decades to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction, and an unfair punishment — all of which require “relief.”

But we should think of taxes not as punishment but, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, “dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.”  Lakoff continues:

Taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society that is democratic, offers opportunity, and has a huge infrastructure available to all citizens.  This incredible infrastructure has been paid for by previous taxpayers.  Roads and highways, the Internet, the broadcast airwaves, our public education system, our power grid — every day we all use this vast infrastructure.  Our dues maintain it.  It is about being a member, a part of the community.  ... Americans pay their dues!

However, it would appear that in Pennsylvania, at least, our dues are not high enough.  In only three days last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the following four stories (which I’ve abridged) about the state government being too poor — or too miserly — to meet its legal obligations and fulfill its promises.

July 23:   Audit Points Out Flaws In DEP Oversight

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a withering review Tuesday of the Department of Environmental Protection’s oversight of the shale gas industry, including failing to consistently issue enforcement orders, even though the state’s oil and gas law requires it.  Mr. DePasquale said the dedication of DEP’s employees to protecting the environment is not in question.  “DEP needs assistance,” he wrote.  “It is underfunded, understaffed, and does not have the infrastructure in place to meet the continuing demands placed upon the agency by expanded shale gas development.”

July 24 (editorial):   West Mifflin Has A Point

Seven years ago, when the state assigned Duquesne’s high school students to West Mifflin, their own district was failing them and failing financially.  Now, Duquesne students in grades seven through 12 attend West Mifflin on a tuition basis, with the state covering the cost.  The problem is that West Mifflin says it costs $15,000 to educate a child but it only receives $10,655.  The disparity contributed to West Mifflin’s own budget shortage, which triggered a 4-mill property tax increase in June.  West Mifflin has made multiple attempts to win an increase but now is threatening to file a lawsuit, which means more money will be spent on a legal fight that could have been used to educate students.

July 24:   A Waiting Game

It appears that the 200 school districts across the state that are awaiting millions of dollars in state reimbursements for construction projects will continue to wait.  The reason:  legislators included only a modest increase to the reimbursement fund of the PlanCon program.  The $10 million increase is not expected to have much effect on the backlog of payments that has existed for several years, given that Allegheny County districts alone are owed more than $18 million.  A project is eligible for reimbursement upon its approval of Part G but does not get funded until approval of a Part H application.  “Everybody who is waiting is waiting for approval of H.  And the state Education Department doesn’t want to approve it, because if they approve it, then they have to pay,” said Richard Liberto, business manager of the Penn Hills School District, which is owed $4 million in reimbursement on its $64 million high school project.

July 22:   Agency Reduces State’s Debt Rating

Credit agency Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Pennsylvania’s debt rating on Monday.  Gov. Tom Corbett said the downgrade reflects Pennsylvania’s looming and unresolved pension bills, and Democrats countered that the rating hit had more to do with the governor’s unwillingness to tax the energy industry or enact other new revenue.  Moody’s said its downgrade was because of Pennsylvania’s “growing structural imbalance.”  “It’s directly related to the unwillingness of this administration to add revenue to help support the budgets that are important for Pennsylvania,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

Whenever beneficial government programs are unable to accomplish their missions because the Nyquists in the legislature have deprived them of the funds they need, our civilization dies a little.

And whenever any group of politicians becomes destructive of the common good, it is the right of the people to vote them out of office.

 

TBT

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