Voting this year is going to be made painful once again with the inclusion of three ballot initiatives for voters to ponder in addition to selecting their candidates for elected office. The lines will be long and slow as voters figure out what these ballot initiatives mean, and whether they should support or oppose them. If recent history provides any indication, they will all pass. They shouldn’t, and we should have seen this headed off by a General Assembly a little more devoted to principle and a little less concerned about whether they threw the right bones to the right narrow segments of the electorate.
These constitutional amendments deal with providing special property tax exemptions to groups of people, while they are undoubtedly worthy of being relieved of some of the burdens of taxation, will also undoubtedly be augmented by other worthy groups who will become exempt in the future, leaving the burdens of taxation on an ever shrinking productive base. The principled response is that we should keep taxes low for everyone, not to try to exempt some special cases so the burden of the state upon them is more bearable.
It might sound rewarding to give extra tax exemptions to the elderly, disabled veterans and the like, but not too far down the road the temptation is to add additional groups to this special class. How about extending this special preference to disabled firefighters? Families caring for mentally handicapped adult children? Widows? Really, the list of folks we’d want to give special dispensation is potentially endless, as there are lots of folks across the commonwealth dealing with very difficult issues, and their issues aren’t dramatically less impactful than the issues we’re addressing in these ballot initiatives. So instead of heading down this road where we separate citizens into the group that pays for government and the group that doesn’t, it makes sense to ask why we’d want to travel in that direction in the first place.
The federal tax code is chock full of preferential treatment given to give tax relief for worthy and noble purposes. Almost 98% of that massive 55,000 page tome does nothing but describe the conditions and mechanisms of tax breaks, making it so complex and unwieldy that no one understands it, yet everyone faces criminal prosecution for violating it. By adding a little here and a little there, a special exemption here and then close the three loopholes that exemption created there, we’re going in the same direction in Virginia as we’ve seen in the federal taxation disaster that has so badly twisted the concept of taxation that the proportion of Americans who pay taxes is roughly equal to the proportion that does not.
We might think we are causing social good with these well-meaning attempts to help some Virginians, but we’re not. Charity towards these worthy people is something we freely do out of the goodness of our hearts, not with the awesome sword of government power. When we try to twist the role of government into that of delivering charity to needy people, we don’t end up causing the good we intended and deliver consequences on the public that are terrible.
Shame on our members of the General Assembly who passed the buck on to us because they couldn’t muster the courage to stand on principle.
For more on this, and the specifics of the amendments, I encourage you to read the article at Tertium Quids.
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