Tales from the Chief: One way or another, the taxes keep coming
“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” — Benjamin Franklin, 1789
It’s 230 years since Franklin wrote the above words in a letter, but death and taxes each retain their own inevitability. While the quotation has been often cited, there’s another one that could be even more apt. As Will Rogers once said, “The difference between death and taxes is death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”
Since Congress — and the various political shenanigans of late in Washington, D.C. — may be seen by some as too easy a target, we’ll stick to much more local matters. After all, it’s the taxes we pay within our home state, and within our own communities, that often provoke the most considerable ire.
Last month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz presented a two-year budget request that totals $49.5 billion. That represents a $4 billion increase, with some of that money to come from an existing surplus and the remainder from new spending and — you guessed it — taxes. But that’s not all, folks. The governor’s also hoping to raise gas taxes by 20 cents a gallon, which would go toward much-needed improvements to roads, bridges and mass transit. An increase in motor vehicle registration fees and vehicle sales taxes to fund a new 10-year, $11 billion transportation plan.
“Unfortunately, the governor’s proposed budget is a plan that would disproportionately affect Greater Minnesota families. This budget would raise spending to unprecedented and unsustainable levels, costing Minnesotans more at nearly every turn,” wrote District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, in response to Walz’s budget proposal. Added House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, borrowing from Walz’s “One Minnesota” campaign theme: "Governor Walz's budget is a recipe for One Expensive Minnesota.”
Still, all this state-level talk only tells part of the story about how taxes may impact state residents, particularly those who call Nobles County home.
This past November, Worthington voters demonstrated overwhelming support for the creation of a new half-cent sales tax in the city that’s hoped to generate up to $25 million within the next 15 years to fund local projects. We stress the word hoped because, even though our community supported this local option sales tax proposal, the Minnesota Legislature still has the final say as to whether or not the tax can be implemented.
Some believe another local option sales tax plan brought forward by Nobles County during a Feb. 5 Board of Commissioners meeting could harm the city’s chances of getting its own proposal advanced in St. Paul. A Nobles County half-cent sales tax would be established to fund specific transportation projects and, unlike the city’s half-cent tax, would require neither voter approval or consent from the Minnesota Legislature. In other words, Worthington residents who allowed themselves to be assessed one new tax would be unexpectedly hit twice.
Back in 2013, state legislators opted to give Minnesota counties the right to authorize their own local option sales tax, an action that came after a repeated failure to pass sustainable transportation funding. By doing so, to employ a transportation-related cliche used last month by Nobles County Commissioner Gene Metz, the can just got kicked down the road — and that can has effectively landed in front of each county’s doorstep.
It seems as if the best solution we could all hope with regard to these local-level taxes would a model of consistency when it comes to funding local and county projects. Why should the city and county get to follow different rule books? Additionally, if transportation issues and infrastructure are as bad at the state level as they reportedly are, the state — and not each of its counties — needs to act. That’s where Gov. Walz’s gas tax proposal may come in, but given past resistance to such increases (never mind Walz’s other costly budget plans) this plan may very well be running on empty.
“Empty” may also be the word to describe our pockets given the taxes that seem necessary to right the various governmental wrongs that ail us. Many of these, of course, have been woes for years, despite the taxes we’ve paid to try to correct them. Let’s just hope that whatever measures are taken when it comes to state funding of local entities, they don’t hurt those same entities further.
But can we count on our politicians to do this? Death and taxes may be certain, but so seems the nature of politics — perhaps even more so. Take as Exhibit A a bill by four Republican Minnesota senators that would give drivers the option of paying an additional 20 cents in tax per gallon when paying for fuel. Last I checked, paying taxes isn’t a matter of choice, though clearly some legislators clearly want to score political points by floating such sort of proposal.
This brings to mind another quote, this one from the incomparable Groucho Marx: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble; finding it everywhere, diagnosing it wrongly, and applying unsuitable remedies.”