Katy Burns: Entitled Nation
Of course state legislators should raise the gas tax.
The tax was last increased in 1991 – 23 years ago. Since then, construction materials for road and bridge repair and maintenance have increased several times over. The existing tax brings in proportionately less than it did then as cars and trucks get ever-greater mileage, and the state’s roads and bridges fall into ever-greater disrepair.
But however bad our transportation infrastructure gets, our legislators – and the people who elect them to office – don’t want the tax raised. They come up with lots of reasons, including, in the case of one powerful senator, the magic money in the form of (now nonexistent) casino revenue that will solve all our problems.
But the bottom line is that a whole bunch of us might want good roads. We just don’t want to pay for them. We feel, well, privileged. Entitled, even.
And this sense of privilege, of entitlement, isn’t limited to gas taxes or to people in New Hampshire. Americans want to have it all – feel entitled to have it all. We just don’t want to pay for it. Our attitude was nicely summed up by that late, legendary senator from Louisiana, Russell B. Long:
“Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.”
It’s a philosophy we fervently embrace in the Granite State, but it dominates throughout most of these United States. It’s just that sometimes figuring out who that fellow behind the tree is tricky, particularly if he tends to complain about it.
There was the brief, now aborted foray into responsible budget-making in the military budget. Right now that budget is exponentially increasing, driven by inexorable growth in personnel costs, especially health care and pensions for retirees. Over the years members of our all-volunteer military have accrued a pretty good set of benefits, often far exceeding not only those in the private sector but most others in public service.
In what was widely considered a very modest first step in trying to slow the growth of future indebtedness, budget writers proposed a slight decrease – 1 percent – in the annual cost-of-living increases for retired military people still in their working years, generally between 40 and 60.
Well! One would have thought budget writers were callously pitching elderly vets into the streets. Led by our own allegedly fiscally responsible Sen. Kelly Ayotte, grandstanding politicians and veterans’ groups went into paroxysms of rage, railing against the measure after it had passed as part of a hard-won budget measure.
And members of Congress – in an almost unheard-of burst of legislative bipartisanship these days – practically stampeded to repeal successfully the modest measure which would have saved billions over 10 years.
So much for tough budgeting.
Then there is the disheartening story of federal flood insurance. In case you’ve ever wondered who on earth insures all those houses perched on fragile barrier beaches up and down the coast – you know, the ones we see regularly swept out to sea when a hurricane comes through – well, you do. Through your taxes.
The federal government has been in the business of insuring properties on flood plains since the 1960s, when private insurers had basically given up the business because it wasn’t profitable to insure properties that were regularly swept to sea. Property owners beseeched their elected representatives, and voila! The National Flood Insurance Program, subsidizing insurance in flood-prone areas, was born.
But we’ve had some doozies of coastal storms over the last few years. In 2012, FEMA’s flood insurance program was swimming in red ink. Which meant that other taxpayers – most of whom did not have insurance subsidized by the federal government – were on the hook. This was understandably viewed as not fair.
And so both houses of Congress passed, with large margins, a flood insurance reform bill that laid out a process for bringing rates more in line with actual costs.
It was widely viewed as the fiscally responsible thing to do. Until, that is, the rate increases began. And affected property owners from Florida to Maine began screaming bloody murder.
The U.S. Senate, again voting in splendid bipartisan fashion, has already passed a bill putting off the increases for at least four years, and leaders in the House of Representative are busily putting together an even more forgiving measure which would undo much of the 2012 reform, including mandating that current cheap rates could be passed on to future buyers of the property.
So much for fiscal probity.
On the bright side, though, we have that oft-elusive bipartisanship!
There are several other nifty not-so-little taxing issues that could come up in the future should lawmakers ever decide to get serious about bringing down our national debt and making a fairer tax system.
Consider tax deductions for home mortgages. Currently all the taxpayers in this country are underwriting homeowners, even owners of vacation properties, by making mortgage interest payments tax deductible. This costs the federal treasury billions of dollars every year, money that is made up in taxes paid by everyone, including plenty of non-homeowners. Every so often a brave legislator will suggest that this system should be reformed, at least insisting it be reserved for primary homes only. And that legislator quickly becomes a pariah.
Then there is the matter of health insurance subsidies. And no, I don’t mean the ones in the Affordable Care Act, which so many self-styled conservatives love to decry. I mean the ones virtually every American who is the beneficiary of employer-provided health insurance enjoys. Employer-provided insurance is a hugely valuable benefit, one worth thousands of dollars to everyone who enjoys it. And yet, unlike almost all other employer-provided benefits, employees do not have to pay income taxes on it.
And that costs the federal government a lot of revenue. In fact, the U.S. Treasury has estimated that tax expenditures for overall employer health benefits in 2006 alone amounted to $132.6 billion – the largest single tax expenditure in the federal budget.
Yet if lawmakers ever even hinted that they would re-examine that system, I expect mobs with torches and pitchforks would march on Capitol Hill. Seems there are whole bunch of fellows behind that tree.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)