Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paying Our Fair Share

By Sen. Christine Kaufmann
The Policy Institute Board Vice-President and State Senator, District 41

Originally printed in the Helena IR April 14, 2011

In the next few days I will join with thousands of Montanans to make an investment in the common good. By pooling our resources we’ll increase opportunity for all Montanans and provide a strong foundation for our economy. That’s right, we’ll pay our taxes and we’ll get all those things that make our communities stronger and promote the kind of shared prosperity that our state depends on.

We get safe communities. I certainly could not pay for police and fire protection, clean air and water, a public health system to protect me from communicable diseases, a criminal justice system, or disaster services — all on my own. So I’m happy to join with my neighbors through government to ensure those services are there for all of us.

We get functioning communities. We are assured the children in our neighborhood are learning academic and life skills in the free public education system to help them participate productively in the social, economic and cultural life of the community. The financial systems function behind the scenes to allow for the creation of wealth. Social safety-net programs are there for our neighbors and for us when the economy doesn’t work equally well for all of us. We are all safer when our neighbors are secure. I could never pay for this on my own.

We get livable communities. They grow in a more or less orderly manner. Streets, sidewalks and trails seem designed to provide a way to get where we want to go. The infrastructure delivers water, heat and electricity and carries away garbage and human waste. There’s a thriving arts community and ready recreational opportunities. It doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when government teams up with the private sector to make it happen.

We all get safe, functioning and livable rural and urban communities. But who should pay for them? That is a central question in a democracy. The foundation of progressive policy is fair taxation. It is a necessary good. Those who benefit from public investment must contribute to it. Those who benefit more and have greater resources should contribute more.
It’s not fair that low wage earners have the same tax rate as the wealthiest in our community. It’s not fair that the oil and gas industry gets a tax “holiday” for the first 12 or 18 months of drilling when they are making huge profits extracting a nonrenewable resource. It’s not fair that owners of mansions pay the same property tax rates as their neighbors who are forced from their family homes by increased property values.

I introduced bills this session that would have addressed these inequities. Such policies are not popular — in either party. Politicians take polls and ask people and businesses if they like paying taxes and want to pay more. Not surprisingly, most of them say “no.”

It’s easier to pledge “no new taxes” than to start a conversation about safe, functioning and livable communities or how to make the tax system more balanced and fair. We can’t even pass bills to close tax loopholes in the system we have. The fact is taxes should be raised for some of us. The costs to support community structures and services we expect go up just like everything else. Without a system of fair and adequate taxation, everything collapses. We may not enjoy paying taxes, but if we love our state and our country, we should at least acknowledge it’s an investment worth making. Our lives depends on it.

Sen. Christine Kaufman’s district includes much of the west side of Helena and the Helena Valley.

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