The tax man always gets his due

George Harrison, the Beatle, wrote the theme song I’m humming these days. You see, “I am the taxman.” Actually, I’m not changing professions to become a taxman, just signing on as his scout, a harbinger of his agenda. The fact is that governments big and small most everywhere are running out of money for everything from asphalt and no-left-turn signs to school buses and fire engines, and are looking to pass ballot measures this year or next to raise taxes. So this little taxman tune is in my head a lot these days.

You might wonder what a Republican and conservative is doing throwing in with the taxers, singing their song. I am glad to explain. I am doing this precisely because I am a conservative Republican. Years ago, a local official invited me to start down this ironic path, polling on tax initiatives, because he knew he couldn’t get his tax proposal passed unless the Republican majority in his community voted yes. He said he didn’t understand Republicans and invited me to help him do so. I obliged and an interesting subtext to my career blossomed. This spring and summer is bringing a bumper crop.

As a conservative Republican, I totally embrace ballot measures as a means of raising taxes. Unlike sneaky tax and fee hikes that Congress, state legislatures and town councils vote to pass (after running on a platform of “no new taxes”), the ballot measure is honest and straightforward. The taxing jurisdiction must face the voters straight on. I have learned quite a bit about how this works. If the taxer can make a sufficient case to the electorate (and most importantly, to the conservative Republicans) that the revenue is needed and that the dollars will be handled responsibly, he gets his tax. If not, the taxman gets nothing.

Stereotypically, you might think that Republicans always vote against taxes. Not so. As I said, it’s my professional obligation to have them do otherwise. But that’s not a particularly difficult task if the asking is right. Republicans are generally more affluent. They want nice things, like good schools for their kids and first-class fire departments and emergency services when needed. They appreciate good roads that move traffic and commerce. Republicans appreciate that their property values are enhanced when these public amenities are done well. So Republicans will vote for taxes when the object of expenditure is clearly designated and necessary. What Republicans hate is when governments squander tax dollars on dumb stuff and then refuse to be held accountable for where the money went. So to get GOP support for taxes, there must be a built-in system of accountability and citizen oversight. We want to keep an eye on things.

Over the years, I have learned that the credit-worthiness of the taxer is important to most Republicans’ willingness to grant a new tax. Just as a banker is more willing to approve a loan requested by someone who has paid back past debts, voters are more likely to approve requests by governments that have proven they can handle tax dollars responsibly. One of the best arguments one can make for approving a new tax is demonstrating the manner in which the last such tax was handled. 

That alone, however, might not be enough to secure voter approval for the wave of local and state tax hikes I see coming over the next 18 months. Unless the economy gets better soon, I can see even responsible proposals for worthy purposes made by trusted governments getting rejected simply because people feel they can’t pay a penny more in taxes. It’s a tough economy, but the taxman will still get his due when the asking is done right. Republicans like nice things and might say yes.

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