To tax or not to tax what — and whom?
Forget “follow the money.”
In the legislative session starting today in Columbia, General Assembly members must again find the money our state government requires.
And unlike the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., the lawmakers in Columbia must balance their budget.
Yet state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, pre-filed a bill last month to phase out South Carolina’s individual income tax over the next five years.
How does Shealy suggest replacing that lost loot?
She doesn’t. Her solution to the projected $3.4 billion shortfall from the income tax’s elimination — more than half the state’s tax take last year — is to enact deep spending cuts.
OK, so as Plato warned long ago, “When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income.”
And sure, Texas and Florida get by just fine without a state income tax.
Only this isn’t Texas or Florida. This is South Carolina. Eliminating our income tax would inevitably require raising other taxes — regardless of Shealy’s silly notions.
And sales taxes in South Carolina, due not to just state hikes but assorted “local options,” have climbed considerably over the last two decades. That doesn’t just make the stuff you buy more costly.
It makes the flow of tax revenue to state and local government less reliable.
Up, down, all around
Consumer spending rises — and falls — with the economy’s fickle fortunes.
Plus, even with the economy showing encouraging signs in a state that has weathered the Great Recession storm better than most, that doesn’t assure a sharply upward surge in the sales-tax haul.
And as Saturday’s Post and Courier reported, economic experts say the aging of our state’s population limits the big-item spending that helps elevate sales-tax revenue.
Frank Rainwater, chief economist for the state Budget and Control Board, explained that concept to the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce on Friday. As he put it, “We have an older population, and for the most part that means they’ve already bought houses, they’ve bought cars.”
So income taxes are “unjust” and sales taxes are unreliable.
Meanwhile, too-high property taxes force you, in effect, to rent your home or business from the government.
We are way overdue for a state gas-tax hike to fix our dangerously deteriorating roads and bridges. That tax, which hasn’t been increased in more than a quarter century, is among the nation’s lowest and would hit lots of non-South Carolinians who fill their tanks (in more ways than one) within our borders.
Legislators could even claim they weren’t violating no-tax-hike pledges by calling the gas-tax hike a “user fee,” as state Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, suggests.
At the local level, jacking up parking fines (and booting up cars) boosts the cash flow — and the public’s temper.
So do speeding fines on the local and state levels.
In 2010, the General Assembly, overriding then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s veto, raised the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 7 to 57 cents — which still is lower than the tax in 40 other states. Then again, if exorbitant taxes move enough smokers to quit the deadly habit, that wouldn’t just raise average U.S. life spans. It would raise the risk of government’s health-care expenses climbing in the extended human-longevity process.
Back to the impending start of the legislative session: S.C. Senate and House members won’t be the only folks showing up at the Statehouse today.
The “Truthful Tuesday Coalition” of progressive groups will hold an “Enough is Enough” rally there at noon.
High on the list of its protest targets: Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision that the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion option (a requirement until the U.S. Supreme Court deemed that part of the unaffordable law unconstitutional) was an offer she should refuse.
How much is enough?
Haley’s rightly leery about guarantees from folks who made phony Obamacare pitches. After all, what was so “truthful” about the president’s “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” refrain?
Anyway, if boosting Medicaid eligibility from 100 percent of the poverty level to 138 percent is a good idea, why not boost it to 150 percent, or 200 percent, or more?
And who will pay for that?
So as you ponder how the Legislature should pay our state government’s way with our money, also ponder this 1850 reminder to the House of Commons from future British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli:
“To tax the community for the benefit of a class is not protection; it is plunder.”
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is email@example.com.