How to talk — or not talk — about taxes
I run a non-profit devoted to pursuing widespread prosperity in Colorado. As part of my job, I worked toward passing Amendment 66, the $951 million school funding ballot initiative that voters rejected Tuesday. I also work with other economic policy proposals that pivot on taxes and the role they play in making Colorado work.
Here’s the thing. While taxes are a critical part of our work, we can’t talk about them. Not directly, at least, and certainly not in an election. After 15 y
ears in this line of work and countless meetings with political strategists, pollsters and message crafters, I’ve learned to leave out the “t” word as much as possible. People don’t like taxes, generally viewing them as a personal loss and rarely as a community benefit. The word itself makes people wince. Most folks, if forced to talk about taxes, acknowledge that they are essential but say they’re “too high,” or that “the wrong people pay” or “don’t pay” or that “they go for the wrong things” or are “wasted because they don’t pay for” whatever is a priority to the person who’s doing the griping. I hear this a lot, perhaps the most frustrating comment of all: “Well, I’d be willing to raise my taxes but nobody else is.”
In Colorado, unlike other states, the only way to authorize new taxes is to have an election and ask voters to agree to raise them. And what annoys people even more than taxes? Elections and the ads, robo calls, door knocks and junk mail that go with them. What’s so ironic is that, when polled, most people say they want to vote on their taxes, yet when called or canvassed by campaigners, many complain bitterly about the intrusion.
Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) creates this situation of requiring voter approval. Based on past conversations with its quixotic author Doug Bruce, I’m confident that he understood this election dynamic when he drafted the law. I am not as confident, however, that voters understood that requiring elections to raise taxes would mean a deterioration in roads and bridges, dramatic increases in the costs of transportation and tuition. Since TABOR was passed by Colorado voters in 1992, we’ve seen a plummeting of state tax dollars going to infrastructure and education.
Sometimes it feels like we have to do our job with one hand tied behind our back. Our supporters want us to analyze the impact of education on our economy. We need solid research on the best ways to expand middle class earnings. We’re asked to go beyond articulating problems to identifying solutions. But as soon as we drop the word “tax” in a sentence, we’re labeled either as liberals or politically naïve.
Amendment 66 was about education improvements like smaller classes, more preschool and full day kindergarten — changes that, no matter how you couch it, require more money. It was also about changing our tax system in a way that reduced the reliance on taxes from the middle class. A political campaign — which is little more than a series of TV commercials, short conversations on the phone or at the door and social media messages — is an ineffective way to combat bias against taxes.
Democracy, like a market economy, requires reliable information to function properly. In today’s political climate, words are held hostage to bias that keeps us from having important conversations about real solutions to the challenges of our times.
Franklin Roosevelt described taxes as “the dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.” What does it mean for our organized society if we are afraid of the price of admission?
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