By: Brian McLain
Over the past several weeks a campaign funded by big money donors and developers to push a one-cent sales tax increase across Polk County has ramped up through town halls to social media. In these ads and Q&As, officials and colored graphics trot out promised benefits throughout the county, from potholes, to emergency responders, to property tax relief in the hopes that it will convince a large enough segment of the population to vote in favor of the measure. However, there is a growing bipartisan sentiment that is railing against the Measure that is leaving those in favor of the proposed tax hike on the defensive.
A one-cent sales tax increase may seem harmless enough. A single penny per dollar on goods, not including certain groceries and medicines, to help fund essential city and county services. It’s an easy trap to fall into and is even regarded as more “fair” than typical taxes. However, sales taxes, in and of themselves, are regressive and disproportionate shifts the tax burden onto those who cannot shoulder that expense. Here are some of the most glaring reason why to vote NO on Measure A on Tuesday, March 6th.
1. It hits the most vulnerable citizens the hardest.
Sure, the sales tax may not be applied to most groceries and medicines, however, it is still applied to a number of other necessities such as child care needs, cleaning supplies, and essential household services. When taken at a percentage of income, the 17% increase in sales tax, indiscriminately applied, affects one’s liability less and less the more that one makes. An extra 50 cents on diapers may not seem like much to someone who is making $75,000. However, when someone is dependent on WIC or SNAP to feed their family and are picking bills out of a hat to determine which ones to pay for that month, that extra 50 cents adds even more weight to their already crushing financial circumstances. Artificially inflating the cost of simply surviving is an undue hardship and one that we should avoid.
2. Using sales tax to pay for property tax relief is simply a bad idea
A lower property tax rate is appealing to almost any homeowner you talk to and it is a favorite talking point of many municipal candidates around election time. It’s no wonder, then, that property tax relief is one of the first benefits sold to voters when a sales tax increase is proposed. Putting aside the fact that such relief never truly materializes, (rates go down, assessments skyrocket), the very concept of shifting tax liability from property owners to a general sales tax is never a good idea and is always regressive.
Property taxes closely follow property value which is also tied closely to income. From the very beginning the most pressing question that a bank asks of any client applying for a mortgage is in regards to income and the amount of land one is able to afford. The more income you have, the higher value property one is able to purchase. By contrast, a sales tax is applied across the board, regardless of how much money one makes. Once again, the less a citizen makes, the more of a percentage of income they pay with a sales tax.
3. Those who will shoulder the most burden will benefit the least
It was about twenty years ago when the city of Des Moines, after spending large sums of revenue on downtown beautification projects, determined that it was going to save some money by turning off street lights in the lower income areas of the city. I was living on Raccoon Street at the time and saw a typically well lit area of town go dark for several months. On top of this there were several streets, including my own, that were unpaved and riddled with potholes. Little was done about this other than some occasional oiling to keep dust down on the gravel or, if we were lucky, a bulldozer would scrape some asphalt on top of the more egregious roads. Despite paying a higher percentage of their income into the tax, the likelihood that they will see any real benefit from the contribution they are making is almost nill. The council has shown more often than not that if developers can’t gentrify an area, improvements to those areas often see little too no attention. Further, lower income neighborhoods tend to be the first areas of the city that see cuts in services when the city determines it has to save money. The revenue is more likely to go towards more projects in downtown Des Moines beautification and gentrification and to improve services in more wealthy areas of the city. Seeing the big money attached to pushing this Measure through, such as Hubbell and Meredith, I have little confidence that things will be any different if this local option sales tax increase passes.
4. Renters will be paying for their landlord’s property tax cut
Those of whom have no other choice but to rent will see no relief whatsoever from any property tax cut, and anyone who might argue that a property tax cut will translate into lower rent have not had the pleasure of renewing an apartment lease lately. To make matters even worse, the sales tax that tenants will have to pay in addition to their increased rent will go towards paying for the allegedly promised property tax cut their landlord will receive. This is very much in line with the large number of wealthy individuals and corporations behind the “Yes on Measure A” campaign, who will most benefit from a shifting of tax burden from them to the rest of the working class.
5. There is no guarantee that revenue will go towards what is being touted
Through past experience, we really shouldn’t have a reasonable expectation that any of the revenue will go towards the benefits being advertised. With all the song and dance of improved city services and infrastructure, there is absolutely nothing holding any municipality to actually spend the revenue wisely. For decades now money has been flowing into tax abatement programs of newly constructed upper class neighborhoods, credits and deductions to powerful and profitable corporations, neighborhood gentrification, downtown beautification, and other projects that benefit only a very few in the county. The campaign to get people on board for Measure A does not put forward any specifics in regards to how the money will be spent, only general hot button concepts that they know will get a reaction from the citizenry, with the hope that it will be enough to fool them into marking Yes on the ballot. Rather than developing a pool of revenue that is built on the backs of the poor to satisfy the needs of municipalities, it would be far more productive an alternative to put forward a bond measure. The beauty of bond measures is that they lock in how much will be spent, on what it will be spent, and how the bond will be funded.
Measure A is an attempt to get the lower and middle class to cover the irresponsible spending of municipal officials and tax cuts and credits for the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the county. It is a shifting of tax liability that few can afford and is a regressive and inefficient way to deal with the infrastructure and service issues that have been so heavily neglected in favor of questionable appropriation of revenue. It will harm the most vulnerable among us. And, if the past is any indicator, will do nothing to improve the services and infrastructure in the areas and for the citizens most in need even though those citizens will shoulder the highest burden of the tax.
This Tuesday I encourage our readers in Polk County to go to the polls and stand against this regressive and harmful proposal.
Vote NO on Measure A.