Monday, March 21, 2011

"Until legislators admit they have a problem - that they've been misleading taxpayers for years...they'll only continue to play this problem forward."

Your money now belongs to the state, but don't worry - it's not a tax


by Harold Cook
Letters from Texas
Copyright 2011

Somebody tell me what I'm missing.

Today, Lt. Governor Dewhurst will appoint a subcommittee led by Senator Robert Duncan to look at "non-tax revenue" sources to help balance the budget. I know you haven't read this anywhere because the Republicans in charge are pretending it doesn't exist, but we have this small matter of this teeny tiny microscopic $27,000,000,000.00 budget shortfall. But don't worry, we're not like California (we're worse).

So, I wondered, what exactly is "non-tax revenue"? Presumably, under the definition I've been able to derive from listening to Republicans discuss it, is money or other assets the state has squirreled away in various places, currently out of reach of budget writers trying to make ends meet. Also, they say fees will also be a part of the discussion of this subcommittee. Presumably, they won't be reducing any.

Don't buy into the spin - they're playing with words again.

With the exception of some admittedly-vast real estate holdings we inherited when we beat Mexico in a quaint little war that produced some dandy songs, several iconic old buildings, and at couple of bad movies, and the income and interest earned on that real estate and other interest income, unless I'm missing something, every dime the state of Texas now holds is money that once belonged to you, and now belongs to them. How is that "non-tax?"

If you used to own it, and Texas government made you hand it over, it's a tax.

Just because you already handed it over, probably for some unrelated, and quite possibly very noble, purpose, and the state didn't spend it for the purpose they promised you they would, doesn't mean it's not a tax. We call that a lie, and we don't even accept behavior like that from our own children.

And the state has been lying to Texans for a very long time on all those "fees." They call them "fees," you see, to avoid using the word "tax," but if you're the guy being charged the fee, I bet it feels just like a tax to you, doesn't it?

Here's how they lie: they create a tax, and tell Texans that they're collecting it for a specific purpose, which sounds hunky-dorey to the public, so they very quickly go back to sleep. The public pays this tax month after month, year after year, without even noticing, hidden in your phone bill or utility bill or paid by a business that passes it through to you. The state collects the money for years and years, spending little or nothing of it on what they promised you they would. The result are special funds held by the state worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which they use to certify the budget, so they can pretend to be fiscally responsible.

I'm sure it started out innocently enough, to get out of what budget writers believed at the time to be a short-term cash crunch. But like most drug use, it has gotten completely out of hand, until now, the little fibs have become huge lies.

Now they want to call it "non-tax revenue." But what that really means is, they already collected the money from you, and have for years. It was a tax then, but now that they have the money, they'd rather pretend they just found it in the street somehow.

I actually believe that this "non-tax revenue subcommittee" move might be a step in the right direction for making ends meet in this immediate budget crisis. After all, teachers need to teach, doctors need to doc, potholes need to be filled, that sort of thing. It costs money to serve Texans, and they'll have to get it from somewhere. Better to sweep it out of those useless special funds than to make public education a luxury or throw grandma out of the nursing home. Cuts alone won't get 'em to $27,000,000,000.00.

But, like a drug problem, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. And until legislators admit they have a problem - that they've been misleading taxpayers for years, using financial shell games to cover up the structural deficit - they'll only continue to play this problem forward.

This may be the very worst time for state budget writers to solve these huge problems, because the solutions cost money they don't have. But it is the perfect time to absolutely insist that they lay out the plan for how the Republicans in charge will stop lying to taxpayers about their money. If legislators with conscience fail to insist on it now, they're missing a huge opportunity to get Texas back on track financially.

How is that not the true conservative view? What am I missing?

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