Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I couldn't repair your brakes, so I made the horn louder

This time of the year, probably because we are all struggling with computing income taxes at the federal, state and (sometimes) municipal level, murmurs start to be heard about how the 'tax collection system is broken.' Connecticut is not the the only state that relies on property taxes to supplement income taxes (and actually had the latter long before the former) and it's not the only state that's having a challenging time balancing its books.

As a resident of a small town in Southeast Connecticut, Norwich, in the shadow of the two largest casinos in the world (whose appetites for basic goods and services is gargantuan and who serve as a magnet NOT only to tourista with ganz viel geld (very much money) but also to those luckless, lunchless, little ones for whom a slot payoff is a fever dream), I watch as elected leaders across the region try to do magic tricks with finite funds and ever-increasing needs.

I read this morning about a new idea--actually, an old idea being revisited by new faces in familiar places. Why not, suggested mayors from Bridgeport, New Haven, New London and Stamford, allow CT cities to add one percent to the states sales tax of 6% for local expenditures and expenses. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall suggested "(T)he power to tax is the power to destroy." All the accounts I read of the mayors' visit to the State's Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee suggest their reception was less euphoric that might have been imagined.

The quartet told the committee what the latter already know, what everyone knows (except perhaps a few aborigines in the Outback not yet weighed and measured and classified and categorized, but their day is coming): the tax system is broken. If you've ever paid a tax, you already knew this, right? (Personal favorite tax: when I buy soda in cans or bottles, there's a charge for soda, plus a nickel a container for deposit and then sales tax on the whole amount. I'm so petty I still can't understand why that happens. When I put the containers in one of the machines at the supermarket that makes the ferocious noise as it devours them, if I put 20 in the machine I get back a buck, not a buck plus six cents sales tax. It is, as Yul Brynner noted, 'a puzzlement to me.')

Instead of repairing the failing taxation system, the mayors want to take 'theirs', so to speak, off the top and use it locally to attempt to offer some relief to residential property owners now burdened with increased and increasing costs from every aspect of the private sector and close to the breaking point. From what I read, and didn't read, no one on either side of the table seemed to have any idea when they should all get together to fix a broken system or what any repair should look like. I guess because we're only Knee Deep in Big Muddy, it's only a problem if you're short and it looks like the waist is our next measuring point.

Forgotten, or at least unmentioned, is what we Nutmeggers did with the settlement the state received from the "Big Tobacco" companies in the late Nineties (actually 1998). The settlement was intended to provide a variety of services to those whose lives were, or could be, impacted by cigarette smoking and other tobacco related products. Except as it turns out, the settlement sort of burned a hole in our pockets. Yeah, the Governor and the State Legislature created a Tobacco and Health Trust Fund, but also spent a not insignificant portion of the money to fund local property tax cuts and eduction initiatives. Please don't be surprised-we all bought in on this, through omission and commission, and spent the money as fast as we could.

Sometimes we're goldfish-thirty seconds of civic memory and no more. We're just two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl, year after year. Look in the mirror if you're wondering how we got to this point, and then look into your heart to see if you can map a way out. Diets always begin tomorrow and the generation after our children's children isn't here yet. Now's a good time to stick them with the check, isn't it? When I went back to the garage and the mechanic told me what the actual repair cost would be I was stunned and very reluctant to pay it. I wanted to know if there was another, cheaper solution. Turns out there is, nearly: it's four hundred bucks to fix my brakes, but for a dollar he'll make my horn louder. Coming through, beep-beep.
-bill kenny

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