Here’s A Crazy Idea: Tax Yourself.
Longtime United States Senator and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Russell Long of Louisiana used to say, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that man behind the tree.” Long knew that everyone’s favorite tax was the tax that forced someone else to pay for something. We all want services from the government. The problem there (actually, there are many problems there, but let’s focus on the tax issue) is that we have to pay for those services with taxes. Like many other politicians, Long realized that what we really want is to have other people, the “outsiders,” pay for our public services.
Local governments in Missouri have excelled at this practice for many years. It was here in Missouri that local governments took it to its most extreme form in Mack’s Creek, St. George, and many other places by funding their city governments with reprehensible fine and ticketing practices. Ferguson got much of the attention for these actions after the riots, but, in fact, they were a fairly normal Missouri city when it came to using fines and tickets to fund their city’s operations. After the violence in Ferguson, the state passed beneficial legislation that finally limited this practice, and our entire state is better off for that change.
But local governments still focus on raising revenues by taxing outsiders. Voters in Kansas City and St. Louis just approved keeping the earnings tax, which includes taxing people who don’t live in those cities and can’t vote on the issue. Who wouldn’t want to tax someone else who is only in the city for limited periods, uses fewer public services, and has no say in the matter? Branson did the exact same thing earlier this month when voters passed proposals to pay for important infrastructure improvements entirely with new hotel and restaurant sales taxes.
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A more common practice is the use of special taxing districts such as transportation development districts (TDDs) and community improvement districts (CIDs) to fund local services. Such districts have exploded in recent years, going from a combined 86 in 2004 to 732 in 2020. Special taxing districts can use property taxes, sales taxes, or direct user fees like tolls for their projects. While a couple of the most well-regarded of these tax districts do use property taxes or tolls to fund their operations, I’ll let you guess which tax most of them use. That’s right, the sales tax.
In a 2017 audit, Missouri state auditor Nicole Galloway cited numerous TDDs and CIDs for financial and management abuses. In Springfield, she detailed how the College Station TDD failed to notify shoppers of the tax and failed to include area residents on the TDD board. In Waldo (in Kansas City) multiple CIDs are layered on top of each other, creating high taxes for shoppers that benefit business owners, not the general public. In Southeast Missouri, the Black Mountain CID in Van Buren was caught using the CID’s tax money to make private loans, pay private debts, and fund private expenditures. In Mid-Missouri, the Stoneridge TDD in Jefferson City granted a no-bid contract submitted after the supposed deadline to a board member’s company, while the Rock Bridge TDD in Columbia collected sales taxes from businesses outside the district. Missouri needs tighter limitations on the use of TDDs and CIDs, or they will continue to be abused around the state.
There are benefits to funding government with consumption taxes. This is not an anti-sales tax piece, generally speaking. What I want to argue against is the exploitation of the idea that those shoppers, workers, or visitors who briefly appear in your city need to pay their “fair share” of the local tax burden. “Free rider” is a term for people who use public services without paying the costs. Good public policy should work to limit free riding where possible. But is a person who shops in your city really a free rider who must, in the interest of fairness, pay another half-cent sales tax on the goods that they buy? I don’t think they are, even in tourist havens like Branson or Lake of the Ozarks.
Those shoppers are already paying gas taxes, and a portion of the gas tax gets sent straight to cities for their local roads. Beyond the gas taxes, shoppers and other visitors will generally travel major state and county roads to get to their local shopping destinations. Those malls, shopping centers, grocery stores, etc., are rarely located on streets maintained by city governments.
Those businesses that employees work for or shoppers patronize are already paying commercial property taxes (which are assessed at higher rates than homes) to the city. They pay business license fees to the city, so I might ask what the purpose of a business license is if not to allow employees and customers to come to your place of business? Arguments for raising new taxes, including through measures like TDDs and CIDs, frequently leave out any discussion of all of the other taxes and fees that are currently being paid.
Another issue with funding as much of your local government as you can with a sales tax directed at outsiders is that doing so makes things the government wants look like things the government needs. Do you think that Missouri’s nascent and inexplicable enthusiasm for new trolleys and streetcars would be happening if property owners and trolley users (the few there are) were paying the entire cost? Of course not. The Loop Trolley is entirely funded by outsiders via local sales taxes and federal tax dollars. The Kansas City Streetcar is significantly funded by federal tax dollars and a local TDD, although—to give credit where due—some of the operating funds come from local property taxes. The ability to export most or all of the cost of a new government project onto people who don’t vote on it makes it much more likely that government will engage in activities with questionable benefits. Using property taxes instead as the primary basis for local government funding results in better decision-making by voters—who must decide if the benefits of the government activity are worth what the voters themselves will have to pay for them.
The local leaders who push these efforts to tax outsiders or alleged free riders often feel they are being clever by doing so, as if they have discovered some new trick. The recent ads in favor of the earnings tax in Kansas City proudly claim that half of the money comes from people who don’t live in Kansas City. Supporters of almost every new TDD, CID, or other sales tax proposal consistently tout how this will make those outside shoppers finally pay their fair share. What is lost here is the fact that while your city is being clever in getting that revenue from those outsiders, all of the other cities are doing the same thing to your residents. This whole endless endeavor just creates a circular firing squad of higher taxes used to fund government expenses of questionable necessity. At its worst, it led to long lines at night courts throughout Missouri as town after town was funding itself with tickets and fines targeted toward making payroll rather than public safety.
If Russell Long had been from Missouri, he probably would have changed the final line of his doggerel. “Tax that tourist in the CID” and “Tax that driver in the SUV” come quickly to mind as localized final verses. But his main point stands the test of time and geography. Long understood the desire to tax someone else to fund your public services; a desire that is alive and well in Missouri. Who knows, perhaps Senator Long once got a speeding ticket in Mack’s Creek?