By Lowell Kalapa
For those readers in the First Congressional District, the campaign season has already begun with the special election to fill the now vacant congressional seat. But the full-blown campaign season will take off later this summer once the filing deadline for running for office closes.
No doubt, incumbent lawmakers will be out on the street waving signs and touting what a great job they did this past session, delivering pork for the district and emphasizing that they didn’t raise taxes. As this column noted last week, while it is true that lawmakers didn’t pass a general tax increase like a one percent increase in the general excise tax rate or another hike in personal income taxes on the rich, they, nevertheless, approved measures that will increase the tax burden on certain taxpayers.
But there were some lawmakers who advocated raising the general excise tax and there were certain beneficiaries of the state’s coffers who advocated increasing the state’s personal income tax although largely on upper-income earners.
So voters should be wary of those who come knocking on their doors asking to be re-elected to office. While taxpayers dodged the bullet this year, that might not be the case next year and the only way to insure that cooler heads again prevail is to insure that those who were so willing to increase your tax burden are not there to advocate again for such a tax increase.
Thus, it becomes all the more important that voters do their homework and have the courage to question the candidates, be they incumbents or eager aspiring lawmaker wannabes, as to whether or not they would consider an increase in the general excise tax or the personal income tax. As many families tighten their collective belts as they suddenly experience unemployment or the loss of hours, this is certainly not the time to raise what is an already heavy burden of taxes. Indeed, some lawmakers are already warning that if the economy does not improve that a general tax increase might be necessary.
Unfortunately, that sort of conventional wisdom merely perpetuates the status quo. And until this year, lawmakers made little effort to set priorities for what limited resources taxpayers have to share with government.
But those who benefit from the largesse of tax dollars believe that they are entitled to those dollars, and if there are none to be had, they believe elected officials should just go out and raise some more with no thought of how the added tax burden will affect families or, for that matter, the economy as a whole.
No, for those beneficiaries of those tax dollars, a state appropriation has become an entitlement that in their minds cannot and should not be cut back. This feeling of being entitled to be funded is not limited to those on the public payroll but extends to the contractors who do business with government, and to nonprofits who stand in line waiting for those tax dollars to be doled out either in purchase of service contracts or in the form of grants-in-aid. It is not that there aren’t worthy causes and services provided by these beneficiaries, but when the money runs out, the Pavlovian response is to just raise more tax dollars.
Until this year, the accountability relationship between the benefits received from government tax dollars and the people who have to pay those tax dollars was almost invisible. Lawmakers just assumed there would be more tax dollars, why that is the way it always has been, hasn’t it?
They come back to session each year and there is a pile of money to hand out, and when they wanted to fund a new program they found ways to create fees and user charges when tax dollars were not available. But as lawmakers found out this year, even when they raised the rates of the transient accommodations tax and hiked the maximum personal income tax rates, the tax revenues they had anticipated never materialized!
Lawmakers had to be reminded of that familiar expression made by another elected official years ago, “It=s the economy, stupid!”
So as the campaign season rolls out and politicians begin occupying their favorite corner to wave at you, do your homework and make sure you know whose best interests they have at heart. Is the candidate in your district more than willing to raise taxes instead of cutting spending?
Do you really want to pay more in taxes or do you think that government should tighten its belt just like thousands of families across the state?
Question your candidate, ask those hard questions, because once you cast that ballot it is too late to stop him or her from voting for a tax increase.
Lowell Kalapa is president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii