Michael Mayo on taxes
Tax policy is one of those issues where you can easily have twenty opinions from a group of ten people, and rarely will they agree on all the details, so I want to begin this piece by saying that I agree with a lot of what Mayo has to say in his column for the Sun-Sentinel today. The Florida tax system is unfair (what system isn't?) and chances of real reform are minimal (see above). But I think he's missing a larger part of why the system is messed up.
First, where we agree. Mayo's first point is that Florida needs an income tax, and he's absolutely right. Part of the reason that there's so much screaming for tax reform in Florida right now is because the burden falls more heavily on property owners, and the state can only cut rates so much before essential services fall to a prohibitive level. Add to it that you get a dip in revenues just when you need those revenues the most--i.e. during a housing crunch and a weakened economy--and tax relief for property owners becomes a near impossibility, as the Florida legislature is discovering. A state income tax would allow lawmakers to transfer some of the burden without severely limiting revenues. It gives the revenue stool three legs instead of two.
I'm not so sure I agree when he says that we need to revamp the pension system for public sector employees, unless by revamp, he means allow the people already in the system to continue it if they wish, and move all the others (including new hires) into a 403(b) system like the one Amy and I are in. I'd want to hear the details, because for some people, "revamp" means "take all the money we've promised and dump it into a new, unguaranteed system." Pensions may be a thing of the past, but they represent a promise that the state--or the private sector, in some places--made to their employees, and that promise needs to be kept. When Amy and I went to work for the state, we had the option to get into the pension, and we passed, because of the prohibitive amount of time it took to become vested in the system. I'd have no problem with removing the pension as an option for new people, but the ones who've been laboring under that system deserve the benefits they've earned.
But here's where I think he missed a chance to make an even better point than the one he made:
But 1 and 2 aren't going to happen because it would take 60 percent voter approval to change Florida's constitution.Number 2, by the way, has to do with Save Our Homes, but the problem that Mayo misses is that 1)a change in tax policy requires a Constitutional amendment and 2) that it requires voter approval.
The first problem--tax policy shouldn't be a part of the Constitution, at least not in that detail. Constitutions are clunky things, difficult to change, that are meant to embody the grand issues of state and federal law. They're meant to be abstract, filled with ideals, not weighed down with details. Look at the US Constitution, for example--it's gloriously vague, and that makes it flexible, and open to interpretation. Details--like tax rates--remove the document's flexibility, and what's worse, having those details in the document make it more difficult to change those details in a hurry should circumstances require it, like they do now. It would be a lot easier for the legislature to handle this tax problem if they could do it within the tax code instead of submitting it as an amendment to the Constitution, which brings us to the second problem.
Citizens shouldn't be directly involved in tax policy. Why? Because we're stupid. We're not individually stupid--not all of us--but collectively, we are, especially on this kind of stuff. Let's be frank here--most people don't know what the terms are on their credit cards, don't realize that a credit card company can jack up your rate if you're late on a payment to Florida Power and Light, for example. Do you want these people deciding an issue about portability of Save Our Homes? Really? I don't want to be deciding that issue, and I've been following the debate. I really don't want the guy who's been "informed" by 30 second ads between "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "The King of Queens" reruns making that call. We're not prepared to decide that, nor should we be. That's what we have legislators for.
Democracy, as a governing system, is great in small doses. In large doses, it's a disaster, because it quickly turns into a tyranny of the majority, which is why the Founding Fathers of this country tried to do their damnedest to make sure we didn't have much of it. I think they went a bit too far in places--the property ownership requirement to have the right to vote, for instance--but their underlying theory was sound. We have a representative republic, with the focus on the representative, for a reason. Anything else would be too unwieldy to be effective, and we're plenty ineffective as it is. And as citizens, we have plenty of power that way--if our representatives don't vote the way we like on tax issues, we can toss them out of office and replace them with people who will vote the way we do like. Ideally, our legislators will know more about the tax system than the average voter will, because they will be dealing with it, with the big picture ramifications, with the good of the state as a whole, in ways that the average person can't possibly begin to, because the average person doesn't have time to think about it.
So why are we asking the average person to approve a statewide tax plan?