Opinion Columns & Blogs

March 3, 2013

Dave Helling: Why isn’t public buying tax plan?

Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Club for Growth are flummoxed.

Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Club for Growth are flummoxed.

Both want to push the state’s income tax rate to zero. They understand, though, that government needs some cash to operate – you know, schools, prisons, that kind of stuff.

So they’re offering you a deal: Give up the deductions you now get for real-estate taxes and mortgage interest in exchange for that zero income-tax rate. Do the tax ciphering, they say, and you’ll see you still come out ahead – the Club for Growth is even running radio ads making that argument.

Why, they wonder, don’t voters get this?

Well, here’s a possibility: They don’t trust government to keep its side of the bargain.

Sure, the trade is a good deal if state income taxes are dramatically lowered or eliminated. But Kansans are terrified that once they lose their home deductions, the Legislature will simply wait a few years before jacking their income-tax rates back up again.

Where would they get that idea?

Well, here’s a possibility: That’s precisely what Brownback proposes for a statewide sales tax.

You’ll remember the Legislature promised three years ago to drop the state’s sales tax to 5.7 cents on the dollar at the end of June this year. Now, though, Brownback wants to keep the rate at 6.3 cents per dollar.

If the government can easily break its sales-tax promise, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe any income-tax promise is eventually breakable, too.

Millions of words have been written about the dysfunction of our government and the growing disconnect between legislators and the public. The biggest casualty of the stalemate may be voters’ utter lack of trust that lawmakers will keep their promises.

And surely politicians like Brownback and lobbying groups like the Club for Growth share at least some of the blame for that mistrust. It’s virtually a staple of conservative arguments that government isn’t to be believed, particularly its elected officials.

The biennial blizzard of negative TV ads hasn’t helped either. Most voters are now conditioned to believe that anything they hear from a politician is misleading at best and a flat-out falsehood at worst.

That leaves most taxpayers at least comfortable with the devil they know and deeply suspicious of the devil they don’t.

And taxes, as we all know, are Mephistopheles.

It’s a problem beyond Kansas. The nation’s biggest financial challenges – its tax structure, spending habits, deficits and debts – are horrific, threatening growth for decades to come.

But they won’t be fixed until the public once again trusts government to at least choose options that don’t make the problems worse.

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