What are the purposes of taxes? What should be your attitude toward paying them?
Those questions came up in a weekly Bible study I’m in. Our discussion leader skipped them, probably because the answers are – or should be – obvious.
We pay taxes for projects that you and I need but can’t afford to pay for on our own. Taxes pay to build and maintain roads, including plowing snow and fixing potholes. They pay for water and sewer projects (homeowners often have to pitch in for those). Our tax dollars pay for trash and recycling pickup every week. They pay for parks and recreation – we have awesome public parks where I live, and I don’t have to pay an entrance fee every time I visit one. They pay for libraries (remember those?). And public transportation.
Taxes pay for police and fire departments to protect us, court systems (including jails) to provide justice, and kindergarten-through-12th grade education to help our children prepare for adult life.
And that’s just local taxes (including countywide, in some cases). Here’s the 2016 fiscal year report for the city I live in, taken from the city’s web site. Page 18 includes a flow chart of what the city is all about.
At the state level, taxes pay for other things, too. The biggest spending item – just over half the state’s budget – is “health and human services.” Second is “primary, secondary and other education,” followed by “higher education.”
At the national level, the three biggest federal programs are health care (including Medicare and Medicaid), pensions (including Social Security) and Defense.
Next come welfare, interest on the national debt, transportation, general government and protection.
What should our attitude be toward paying for such services? Hopefully, we pay willingly, since all of these services are needed.
At the local and state levels, those in charge of the budgets are required to balance income and spending. This often requires tough decisions because voters do not automatically approve taxes for every project – nor should we.
Sometimes voters get nitpicky or reactionary. Sometimes leaders ask for a Cadillac project when a Chevrolet version will do just fine. Our local school district in Michigan discovered this a number of years ago: Many school buildings were outdated and new schools in new locations were needed, and since voters had approved many previous school levies, leaders asked for a very expensive plan – which got shot down. They pared it back, asked voters for a smaller yet effective plan, and got that one approved.
Where we live now, voters recently approved a millage to build five new kindergarten-through-8th grade buildings around the city. We learned a couple of weeks ago that cost overruns led the planning consultants to recommend constructing only three buildings – on the north, east and west sides of town, leaving the south side without a neighborhood elementary/middle school.
As you might imagine, that plan isn’t going over so well. Meetings are being held, petitions are being circulated and pressure is mounting to keep the south side school in the plans.
This is the way democracy works. We expect leaders to follow through on promises. We expect budgets to be met. Creativity is required here.
This is why we pay taxes. Every local citizen has the right to express his or her viewpoint on this crucial issue. Our leaders will make the call, but they are accountable to us. And we will be heard.
The benefits of taxes
If we have a job, and if we own a home or even pay rent, we pay taxes. When our Founding Fathers set up our country more than 200 years ago, they set it up this way. We can tweak the system – are property taxes the best way to collect local funds? – but taxes will get collected in some form.
So often, we focus only on how much we pay. We need to be reminded of what we receive. We take trash collection for granted, for example (unless it’s not collected for some reason, in which case residents will howl very loudly). We want our street plowed in the winter, and complain when it’s one of the last to get cleared. (Hopefully traffic volume determines the priority for street plowing.) We recently learned that our city has only 10 employees that plow snow and fix potholes. For the entire city. No wonder they can’t clean every street the moment it snows.
We get what we pay for.
At the state level, they’re talking about combining the K-12 education budget with the higher education budget, creating one huge education department overseeing all of it. State leaders want to streamline everything; opponents say K-12 and higher education have different purposes, and should remain separate.
Not sure that plan will fly, but we’ll see.
No balanced budget, no decisions necessary
The federal government is not required to balance its budget, so Congress often avoids the tough discussions that local and state legislators must have. That skyrockets the federal debt. Is that sustainable?
I’m one of those who would like to see a mandated balanced budget, forcing legislators (and the president) to actually do their jobs. Not every constituent will be happy. Welcome to the real world. (Pork projects might actually get eliminated, since priorities would have to be set.)
We need a federally funded military to defend us across the world. I don’t think anyone would object to that. But how big should the military be? What weapons do we need, and which ones cost more than the benefits they provide?
I wish we could debate those things. At least, I wish our elected leaders would debate those things.
Are they spending our tax dollars wisely?
We have a right to ask that.
Taxes are a given. They pay for goods and services all of us need.
As we debate how our tax dollars are spent – locally, statewide and federally – let’s give thanks for the government structures that our Founding Fathers established.
The system is good. The devil is in the details.