Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Still weary about our punitive state tax burden

Published July 5, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Watching our state's political budget process is not easy. There are so many additional taxes - and some with such vast implications - all under discussion at once. One billion, 2 billion, 3 billion, 15 billion: all numbers I have seen to describe potential tax increases.

The characters involved mirror stereotypes of both political parties: Democrats are seeking a broader governmental role in fixing our problems through tax increases and government spending. The GOP is digging in its heels, wanting to hold the line on taxes and government spending and government's increased involvement in our affairs.

Reminiscent of the high stakes budget showdown that occurred between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch stated he would block the process if the budget delivered to him contains tax increases. By any credible measure, we live in a high-tax state, and this budget season reminds me of the myriad ways government can tax us and how far Gov. Jim Doyle and his coterie of party faithful are prepared to go in order to exercise their views about what government ought to do. But what about the long-term picture beyond the current two-year budget cycle?

I was troubled by a June 24 column by John Tornius that referenced a credible third-party analysis of our state's annual "structural deficit" of $2.2 billion ("State's accounting doesn't pass muster"). The analysis revealed that relative to population, Wisconsin is at the top of all deficit-running states in the nation.

That's more than a little disconcerting if you or your children care about life in Wisconsin more than a couple years from now. Many of us grouse about the need to reduce taxes. That's personal income taxes, real estate taxes, corporate personal property taxes, gas taxes, home-selling taxes and they-don't-give-me-enough-space-to-list-all-the taxes. Others counter with, "That's not realistic; our needs have increased." Or my personal favorite, "But look at our fine educational system and park system and whatever system."

Even if I agreed that we derived an equivalent value from the punitive tax burden we've paid through the decades, we cannot afford everything any longer. As opposed to making more hard choices, I read about things like the governor's proposal to increase by some $55 million annually the cost of state-owned lands in "far-flung natural areas" beginning in 2011. What percentage of us has a desire, let alone need, to traverse additional land already owned by the state in the wilds of Douglas County when our long-term fiscal condition is so bleak?

Other troubling budgetary facts:
• The $15 billion universal health care plan is an 11th-hour power play, and whether you believe such a plan is the answer to our health care conundrum or not, the issues and implications are too complex, too far-reaching, too everything to contemplate now. That patient is dead.
• The new gas tax on oil companies that ostensibly would be borne by oil companies and not passed on to you and me has zero chance of success. If it makes its way into law, it will fail in practice or the courts.
• Lifting any real estate property tax cap will diminish any hope I have left in government.

What we will wind up with this budget season is anyone's guess. The only safe prediction is that if any tax increases get out of the Assembly, there will be a run on bumper stickers that read, "Don't blame me; I voted for Green."