When I was running for the Legislature (both times), property taxes where high on peoples' minds. I tried to listen to their concerns, and some comments I heard while watching the legislative coverage several days ago (and then again today) reminded me of some of the things that I'd heard, and the difficulty that I had answering them.
The Founders of our country declared their independence and created a republic that would try to ensure that citizen voices would be heard. They took seriously the notion of "no taxation without representation."
All that said, they acknowledged the need for some sort of revenue generation, because the cost of doing those things that the citizens expected of government was more than "zero."
Fast forward to 2020. Consider the list of things that you and your neighbors expect some level of local government involvement in. Here's a quick list to get you started:
- Good County/City Roads
- Clean Water
- Sewer treatment
- Law enforcement
These things are all paid for--at least in part--by local property taxes and fees.
When I would talk to landowners, I'd often hear about how high the school portion of their tax bills was. A common complaint: "why do my taxes keep going up for schools, when I haven't had any kids in school for 25 years? Why should I have to pay to give these city kids individual computers?"
Of course the savvy (and feisty) city resident with kids in the school would respond with something like this: "Farmer A, you went to a public school that someone else paid for, and so did your kids. Education is important to a free society. And I never drive on gravel roads, and certainly don't drive heavy equipment over those bridges that MY county property taxes pay for and you take advantage of--and don't you come into town and drive on the city streets that MY property taxes are paying for?"
This is a problem, because we all have something that we see the government doing, which we don't take advantage of, and we wonder why OUR taxes have to pay for it. That doesn't seem fair that our hard-earned dollars are paying for things that we don't use, does it?
And that's where I always asked people to step back, and take a breath. To list those functions that they thought that the government should take on in the world. Most people, I found, bought into the notion that there are certain "collective goods"--roads, schools, bridges, and other infrastructure--that there are some basic services best planned for and provided for by a governmental entity, and they also understood that taxation of some form was probably the only way to fund those things. But they also didn't think that the taxes they paid toward those collective goods were FAIR. That always reminded me of the saying that "the only fair tax, is the one someone else pays."
There is, of course, a real answer to our tax woes--and it doesn't come in the form of raising taxes on someone else. Rather, it comes in the form of taxpayers taking seriously their roles, and engaging their elected representatives at all levels. And, it requires taxpayers who are engaging to offer alternatives to the government paying for so many things--because as long as we expect the services from the government, we're all going to be paying for it in one way or the other.