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Property Tax Reform

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Partisans on both sides of the political aisle in Vermont might wonder why members of either party would want to push raising the income tax as a means of funding education. That, however, is what House Democrats are considering and what Gov. James Douglas has pounced on as if it were a political softball for him to slug out of the park.

The proposal by House Democrats and some House Republicans is simply to reduce the property tax burden on people’s homes and replace it with a higher personal income tax. The theory is simple: the income tax reflects a person’s ability to pay the tax better than a tax on one’s property. Without a doubt, that is true.

But that’s not the issue. The perception of hiking the income tax is the issue to this governor, as is the prospect of creating a tax scenario that could increase overall education spending. It doesn’t even matter if the net tax effect is neutral: what matters is that Vermont would hike its income tax and the governor thinks the perception of increased taxes might discourage businesses and individuals from locating here.

He might be right. When a state’s tax base is concentrated on fewer sources and it particularly hits the income tax that is a simple comparison to make against other states. Keeping the tax base as broad as possible not only makes good sense, but keeps such direct comparisons less definitive.

Moreover, the current tax formula for education finance comes as close as possible to reflecting a resident’s ability to pay through Act 60’s and Act 68’s rebate and prebate system. It’s a bit cumbersome, but it does the job fairly well.

Time, and political capital, would be better spent working on ways to boost the state’s economic infrastructure or health care. The state needs more working capital for our transportation system (perhaps via toll ways or raising a penny more on the state’s gasoline and diesel taxes) to avoid bridge collapses as recently happened in Minnesota. The state also needs a campaign to broaden the shoulders on state roads to promote bicycle traffic as a means of local transportation (to reduce gasoline consumption, promote health and move toward energy independence) and to promote tourism.  The state also needs to continue to pursue more comprehensive health care reform recognizing that it could be one of the most supportive moves the state could ever make to the business community.

With major issues like these, and many others, the only reason Democrats would want to stir the pot on education reform (for very little gain) is because the public keeps clamoring for more property tax relief: that may be a responsive position to take, but (believe it or not) it’s not the most pressing issue facing Vermonters.

Angelo S. Lynn

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