Just leave tax rates alone

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” the sage Ben Franklin once wrote. Monday reminded us of this certitude all over again. The fact that we regularly and predictably confront taxes at least annually, if not monthly, when staring at our pay stubs, doubtless gives us a more palpable sense of taxes than even death, whose appearance in our lives is almost random and episodic. 

Our familiarity with taxes makes public opinion about the topic intricately nuanced and remarkably stable. Whereas Americans’ attitudes about nearly all topics are jumbled and changing daily, views on taxes are steady as she goes. Most of us have come to possess a system of beliefs about every aspect of tax issues. We believe the following:

Taxes are necessary. While there are a few anarchists out there who eschew the need for taxes altogether, most of us accept the necessity of taxes. While we may disagree about the acceptability of our present tax burden, we share consensus that some burden is inherent in statehood.

There is a limit to acceptable tax burden, however. My own polling over the decades suggests that when the combined — federal, state and local/school — tax bill rises to the level that 40 percent or more of voters say is “much too high,” a tripwire is crossed and a revolt starts to ratchet down taxes. Typically, though, sentiments that taxes are excessive hovers in the high 20s to low 30s, well below the threshold of pain.

To wit, most voters most of the time want tax stability more than tax cuts. I seldom find more than a third of voters clamoring for cuts unless the tripwire is crossed. Just leave tax rates alone.

Sales taxes are the fairest tax. Property and income taxes are considered inferior in every poll ever taken. As to why the sales tax is considered superior, we’re not entirely sure. Some say because it’s a tax on consumption that can be legitimately avoided by the frugal. Others say the open simplicity and easy computation of the sales tax makes it preferable to taxes that require appraisers, accountants and giant bureaucracies to administer. There’s also the tininess factor, that it’s collected in cents at a time. 

Surprisingly, tax sentiments cross some party lines. While there is some truth to the caricatures that Republicans hate taxes and Democrats love them, the persistence of exceptions is noteworthy. I often have moderate Republicans tell me, “Well, we have to raise taxes, you know.” These are fiscally frugal people who want to balance the budget, yet evidently have concluded that spending cuts are not possible. Increasingly, I find that minorities — particularly Latinos and African-Americans — are opposed to any tax increases. The reasons range from concerns about equity (“Why don’t rich white folks pay more?”) to objections to the proposed objects of expenditures (“Do we really need that new road?”) and cite simple inability to pay (“I can’t pay the taxes I owe already; certainly can’t afford to pay another one”).

Tax sentiments are elastic, fluctuating with the economy. Consumers fighting unemployment or coping with smaller pay raises are not in the mood to approve higher taxes during an economic downturn like the one we are in now. I do a lot of work for school districts that sometimes need to raise taxes for construction or operations. The districts that are high achievers in the classroom will seldom have difficulty passing a tax hike. But in this economy, voters won’t necessarily reward success. Even some of the best are going to have to wait for better times. Voters’ belief systems about taxes and the larger economy also seem to broadly embrace the notion that higher taxes can hurt job retention and creation.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.