The Mesa Sales and Property Tax Elections
It's local news this week, as I come out in favor of the Mesa tax referenda on the ballot May 16. You can read about the CATO study about lowering taxes leading to more spending (at the federal level) from either Kevin Drum or Daniel Drezner. The column itself is also available on the newspaper website here. The overall polls don't look particularly good, but (as in virtually all local elections) it all depends on turnout. My editor said the last graf gave folks at the Tribune a chuckle.
GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR, PAY FOR WHAT YOU GET
East Valley Tribune, May 7, 2006
Although it hurts write this sentence, in its editorials on the Mesa sales and property tax election, the Tribune has been brave, consistent, and correct.
Mesa has the tax system of a small town of 60 years ago, but faces the challenges that come with being one of America’s 50 largest cities today. Mesa is the largest city in the country without a property tax. The city’s revenues come from retail sales taxes and fees, all of which fluctuate with the economy and which haven’t kept pace with inflation and population growth -- much less problems that simply didn’t exist in 1945.
Don't Sell Future
You can pretend that the budget cuts coming if the tax increases fail are merely “soft services” or some similarly dismissive term. But one family’s “soft service” is another family’s key to safety and success. The city’s neighborhood revitalization and Apartment Watch programs may not have sirens and carry guns, but both prevent crime. Maybe reducing crime and assisting the city’s already-pressed police force is a “soft service” to critics, but it doesn’t seem all that soft to crime victims and cops.
Maybe selling the city’s Pinal County water rights raises short-term cash, which critics (who’ll be long gone when future city residents actually need that water) think is fine. But those who view Mesa as more than a temporary stop might not want to sell the future short and leave their kids and grandkids facing water shortages.
The tax vote has two different sets of critics. The first group imagines Mesa as a libertarian paradise, with police and fire departments and nothing else. They think it was good enough in 1945, by jiminy, so it’s good enough today. I can’t argue with people who actually buy into the whole philosophy; any non-adolescent who still considers Atlas Shrugged great literature is beyond help, although they should move to Idaho with the others -- and not sign up for Medicare when turning 65.
For people actually living in the Mesa portion of the reality-based universe, it’s not such a great idea to eliminate the Park Rangers program, or to cut library and museum hours and staff, or eliminate Dial-a-Ride service for seniors or recreation services for the disabled. The Mesa of 1945 didn’t need 54 arterial streets projects, costing more than $800 million. There’s $585 million in regional funding available for that construction, but only if the city provides $251 million in funding -- money that won’t exist if the vote fails.
The other group of critics acknowledges that Mesa’s revenues haven’t kept up with population and inflation, and that the city faces real needs that didn’t exist 60 years ago. But they’re just not convinced that the current city leadership “deserves” additional taxes.
These folks say they’d vote for new taxes, but not unless all city officials are certified magicians, able to do their jobs and then prove to everybody that absolutely everything has been tried to keep providing more and more in services without paying anything more.
Of course, these folks wouldn’t want that standard applied to themselves; who would take a job where you had to prove, every day and to all comers, that everything you did was perfect and beyond criticism? And if you demand municipal employees who can change water into wine, you’d have to pay market rate for those skills.
Vote 'Yes' Twice
The worst part is that the argument that “if you give government more money, they’ll just spend more” is empirically wrong. William Niskanen of the Cato Institute (a/k/a Libertarianism Central) found that federal data from 1981 to 2005 show that cutting taxes increases government spending, while raising taxes actually reduces spending growth by the same percentages. Not only is it wrong to ask to get increasingly more from government without paying for it, it actually grows government bigger.
So on May 16, for once, follow the Tribune and vote yes, twice. Way to go, Bob Satnan; with you, Keno Hawker, Pat Gilbert, and me all agreeing on something, it’s clearly doomed.