"Tax Reform," Government Union Style, Equals Tax Increases

There is a clamor in Sacramento for “tax reform.” But for every political pundit, politician and bureaucrat in the room, there is a different definition of “tax reform.”

For fiscal conservatives, tax reform means tax cuts. The State of California takes too much of our money now and this heavy tax burden unquestionably hurts working families and hinders economic growth.

But for self-styled “progressives,” tax reform means even more tax hikes to feed an ever growing government and the demands of tax hungry special interests.

Because these two visions of “tax reform” are polar opposites, is it even possible to agree on anything related to changing California’s tax system?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

Both conservatives and liberals have at least acknowledged that California government is too reliant on revenue that fluctuates wildly.  In other words, there is some agreement that the mix of things that are taxed might be altered so that tax revenue is more predictable.

The desire to address revenue volatility is understandable.  Indeed, a commission was created by former Governor Schwarzenegger to address this very issue.  Unfortunately, the commissioners themselves could not agree on a solution.

Now, newly elected state Senator Robert Hertzberg has proposed that California start taxing services, not just sales of physical goods.  The reasoning behind Senate Bill 8 (SB8) is that services make up a much larger slice of today’s economy than in the past and in order to have a “balanced” tax system, we should consider expanding the tax base to things like car repair, legal services, kids piano lessons and dry cleaning.

But taxing services is a bad idea for California.  First, such a levy would have a depressing effect on California’s service economy.  It is a simple fact of economics that when you tax something you get less of it.

Second, and somewhat related to the first, is the ability to avoid the tax by exporting the service.  For example, one can avoid California’s tax on accounting services simply by hiring an out of state accounting firm.  And speaking of avoiding the tax, unlike a sales tax where there is an inventory of physical goods that can be tracked, it is much more difficult to ensure compliance with a tax on services.  California already has a massive problem with tax avoidance due to the huge percentage of the economy that is “underground.”  A tax on services would drive even more economic activity into the shadows.

Some respected tax experts have not rejected out of hand the notion of extending a tax to services but only if done incrementally and in a manner that does not result in a net tax increase.  And here is where the Hertzberg proposal is especially flawed.  Rather than extend the tax to services and lowering the tax rate on both sales and services so the proposal is “revenue neutral,” SB 8 has no provision for lowering the rate.  So what is the tax hit on Californians?  It is estimated to be $10 billion annually.

Last week, a Wall Street Journal article noted how several states in America are now cutting taxes to stimulate economic growth and provide needed relief to their citizens. But the ruling class in California apparently wants to head in the opposite direction.

Taxpayer advocates should always be prepared to discuss legitimate tax reform. But, at this point, Senate Bill 8 doesn’t qualify.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights

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