Read my lips? Candidates debate taxes
Story by Chris Graham
Carl Tate looks at it as reinforcement.
“It reinforces my promise to the citizens of Staunton not to vote to raise their taxes,” said Tate, a candidate for Staunton City Council, who made news in his upstart campaign with his April 8 announcement that he had signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge of the conservative Washington, D.C.,-based Americans for Tax Reform.
His opponents in the all-at-large election, incumbent City Council members Carolyn Dull, Bruce Elder and Lacy King, can almost be said to speak with one voice on the wisdom of what critics refer to as the “no-tax pledge.”
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“The no-tax pledge reminds me of that old saying, Never say never,” Dull said. “Just as sure as we would take that pledge, there would be something crucial that needed to be done. I just think philosophically that I could never do that. I want to keep my word, and there may be circumstances that you can’t foresee.”
“You can look at the two states that have a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, California and Colorado, and right now those two states are on the brink of bankruptcy. For a local government to do this would be incredibly reckless,” Elder said.
“I’ve learned over the years that you don’t ever say never. Because you never know what’s going to happen,” King said. “The last thing I’d want to do is put myself in a position to where if we continue to receive cuts that we’d have to put our public safety, our infrastructure and education in jeopardy by refusing to do what’s right.”
And sometimes doing what’s right is raising taxes to account for gaps in revenues needed to maintain acceptable core-service levels.
“If you do it the right way, there are many instances in which tax increases would be the best way to go economically. And this isn’t just for poor people or teachers or public servants who are underpaid. It’s good for the whole economy. Including for the private sector as well,” said David Shreve, an economist with the Charlottesville-based Virginia Organizing Project.
The impact of budget cuts on service delivery is a given, if one that can be hard to quantify. A more tangible impact is seen in the form of the cuts in government-sector jobs that can have a ripple effect on a local economy akin to the loss of a business or industry.
“Proponents of these pledges pretend that any tax in any form is a net negative in terms of its economic effect. History has proven over and over again that that’s just not true,” Shreve said.
“The way you pay for public services is essentially a tax – whether you call it a fee or even tuition at a public college or university. No-tax pledges are a sort of head-in-the-sand approach to taxation,” Shreve said.
The battle on these points extends to even the basics of the framing of the issue at hand. Notice how the critics refer to the pledges as “no-tax pledges” while the advocates have framed them as “Taxpayer Protection Pledges.”
“These pledges clearly have some rhetorical appeal,” said Michael Cassidy, the executive director of the Richmond-based Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. “Their proponents present them as a simple signal to voters of the ideological position of the candidate. And that may hold some appeal in the context world that we live in, in that there’s this pledge that I’m never going to raise your taxes, that I pledge that I will oppose any and all efforts to increase taxes.
“The problem is that life is complicated,” Cassidy said. “We live in a complex and large economy, and a very diverse and growing community. The challenge is, how does a public official actually deal with the challenges and opportunities of that community responsibly if they’ve chosen to ignore a whole host of tools and options that they may have?”
Nathan Pick, the state affairs manager at Americans for Tax Reform, bristles at the critics on that point.
“This idea that they want to say that it ties their hands, well, if it ties their hands, it ties their hands from raising taxes,” Pick said. “That’s the commitment that you make to the taxpayers, and the taxpayers appreciate it. If you can keep revenue in check, it keeps government from growing.
“Critics like to say, OK, it’s irresponsible, because you can’t spend money when you want to. Well, they spend too much, and it’s responsible to keep taxes low so your city can be a city where businesses want to locate, where families want to live. There’s nothing irresponsible about that,” Pick said.
“People are taxed enough. The Taxpayer Protection Pledge is a line in the sand, saying, If you vote for me, I won’t raise your taxes,” Pick said.
Tate said he decided to sign the pledge after reading a newspaper article quoting members of City Council saying that they didn’t want to raise local taxes this year to deal with a potential budget shortfall, but economic circumstances were maybe forcing their hands on it.
“That kind of bothered me. Some of my opponents are playing this game where they’re trying to appear to be against higher taxes, but in the end they’re going to raise them. I don’t want there to be any question where I stand on that,” Tate said.
“I want to be clear that there won’t be a situation for me where I don’t want to vote to raise taxes, but I’ll vote to do it anyway. I won’t vote to raise taxes. Period. End of discussion,” Tate said.
“City governments have very, very tight budgets,” Elder counters. “About 85 or 90 percent of our budget has a state or federal mandate attached to it, so there’s not a lot of room for tweaking. We can’t tweak the number of special-needs kids in our schools, or the number of elderly people in our communities that need services.
“If you have a community of people between the ages of 30 and 50 who are all affluent, a no-tax pledge would be fabulous. You could operate for almost no money at all. But that’s not the reality,” Elder said.
Dull was more succinct in her final thought on the pledge.
“I think it’s better to just say, Don’t have a tax rate that’s any higher than you have to have to provide what our citizens need,” Dull said.