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Mellman: Taxpayers troubled by inequity

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It’s a refrain that troubles me: “Nobody likes paying taxes.”

Especially for people like me who never served in the military, taxes are the contribution we make to our country, the dues we pay for membership in the enterprise we call America.

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Despite my personal misgivings, I’m willing to agree that most people dislike paying taxes. However, the amount they pay is not what Americans disdain most about taxes.

A Gallup survey, conducted on the eve of the April 15 tax-filing deadline, found 52 percent of Americans saying the amount they paid in federal income tax was “too high.” Though that’s the highest percentage since 2008, the fact is the number has bounced around in a fairly narrow range since 2003. Prior to the Bush tax cuts, the figure was considerably higher, often in the mid-60s or above.

Paradoxically, the very same survey that found a majority saying they paid too much also recorded a 54 percent majority believing the amount they paid was “fair.” That number has been slowly declining since 2009. Maybe a few others agree with me in thinking that, given everything, what they pay is fair.

In the end, though, more people are distraught about who is not contributing than about how much they are paying. Americans increasingly believe corporations and the rich are failing to pay their fair share toward the function of government. A large, 61 percent majority said upper-income people are paying less than their fair share, while 66 percent make that claim about corporations.

Partisan differences emerge clearly: 76 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents say the rich pay too little, compared to only 45 percent of Republicans.

Republicans are just about equally likely to think that the poor and the rich pay too little. While just 11 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of independents say lower-income people do not pay enough, 40 percent of Republicans believe those at the bottom pay too little (compared to 45 percent who say the rich pay too little).

Because Republicans are wealthier, their distress at their own tax bill may account in part for the fact that they are less likely to see the rich as paying too little, but how can they believe the poor are paying too small a proportion of their meager incomes in taxes? Not exactly the party of compassion.

A system that allows the rich to escape taxation is a major irritant for the public. A recent Economist/YouGov poll asked which bothered people most about taxes, “the large amount you pay in taxes, the complexity of the tax system, or the feeling that some wealthy people get away not paying their fair share?” Concern about the amount paid by respondents themselves was cited least often (20 percent), while the wealthy failing to pay their fair share was selected most frequently, by 45 percent.

Congressional Republicans’ continuing efforts to force the middle class (and the poor) to pay more while allowing corporations and the rich to pay less are perhaps somewhat understandable given the views of their partisans. But not too many members represent wholly Republican districts, and the independents and Democrats they represent are in a far different place.

Another factor Americans consider when evaluating the taxes they pay is the value they feel they get for their money. Most people see waste and it bothers them. On average, polls suggest Americans believe more than 50 cents of every dollar the federal government collects in taxes is wasted. That is one reason voters are much more likely to be troubled by how their tax dollars are spent than by how much they pay.

While few may like paying taxes, Americans dislike government waste and big business and the wealthy escaping taxation even more than they dislike forking over their hard-earned dollars to keep America running.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.