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Fair taxes

02/10/03 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) These days we're all a bit uneasy about financial matters. Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that in discussions about taxes, politicians are dodging the central issue of how to figure the fair share that each of us should pay.

(Gilbert) We're in a very uncomfortable financial situation, both as a nation and as a state. We're being bombarded with information, some of it contradictory, about taxes, government spending, and the condition of our economy. On the federal level, in the space of a few short years, we have moved from record government surpluses to record deficits. The Bush administration's new budget makes no attempt to balance spending and taxes. It boosts spending on some items, such as the military, while cutting taxes.

In Vermont, our budget is supposed to balance. That's hard this year. The cost of major programs such as health care keeps rising. The Douglas administration wants Vermonters who are insured through the state's health care program to pay more. That's a politically acceptable way to say, in effect, "We're going to raise your taxes."

The administration is also proposing changes for school funding. It wants to reduce the transfer of General Fund monies to the Education Fund. The effect will be to raise local property taxes. The administration also wants to lower the statewide property tax rate. The effect will be to give a tax break to second homeowners, businesses, and wealthier Vermonters. Low- and middle-income Vermonters will see no relief. The administration also wants to cut property taxes on land in the Current Use program.

These proposed changes come as Act 60 is being criticized as overtaxing Vermonters. The "Common Level of Appraisal" is fingered as the main culprit. But the CLA is not a problem of Act 60; it predates the law. It's a problem of the property tax system itself. The "Common Level of Appraisal" is an unavoidable consequence of trying to assess property according to a single standard.

We're in a time of unease, and that includes an unease about taxes. Politicians prey on this unease. They push "solutions" that they promise will bring about major reforms. Yet they avoid a fuller discussion of how we determine the fair share that each of us should pay for the government services we receive. When Governor Douglas unveiled his plans to cut property taxes, he was asked who would benefit. He responded, "I don't know." A few days later Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne reported that one beneficiary of the Current Use change will be indicted Enron executive Andrew Fastnow. Fastnow owns property in Norwich.

Governor Douglas has caught quite a bit of heat for his tax proposals, even from people within his own party. So he's back-pedaling. He now says he only wanted to start a discussion on tax changes. He's accomplished that. Now it's up to average citizens to make sure that the discussion doesn't end with tax breaks for the wealthy and tax burdens for the needy.

And let's hope on a national level that budget and tax discussions don't end with Mr. Bush's proposals. We, our children, and perhaps our grandchildren are being asked to shoulder huge new financial burdens. Sadly, the taxes needed to pay off the debts could come from those least able to pay, rather than those most able to pay.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.
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