Sunday, May 01, 2005

Revenue enhancement: Tax bad editing

Look, first, at "Which way is up?" below, then read on here. I'll wait for you to catch up.
Thank you.
In the Times Free Press of Saturday, 30 April 2005, on Page B2, is this headline: "Georgia state tax burden 9th lowest."
The story is written by Matthew S. L. Cate, staff writer, and is much clearer than the similar story about Tennessee from an Associated Press writer.
It begins by quoting "federal figures" and "the U.S. Census Bureau" that "Georgia has the ninth-lowest per-capita state tax burden, but state budget analysts said that designation is misleading because it doesn't take local taxes into account."
Parenthetically, and not part of the Cate story, Georgia used to have a state sales tax -- on top of a state income tax and all the other property and other taxes -- on groceries.
Roy Barnes ran for governor, as a Democrat, in 1998 promising, among other things, to end the state sales tax on groceries.
Surprisingly -- perhaps shockingly -- he kept that promise. (I mean, who remembers a Democrat even promising to end any tax? And then for one to keep such a promise? Unheard of!)
The state did indeed repeal the (I think 2 percent) sales tax on groceries -- and almost immediately almost all the counties added (usually 2 percent) to the local sales tax.
So perhaps the information does figure in the story, since apparently the "federal figures" do not include that regressive tax.
Still the Cate story goes on to say the per person "state tax burden was $1,650 in 2004 ... That's what it was in 2000, and the per-capita rate has varied about $100 more or less since then.
"Tennessee's 2004 state tax burden was $1,616. That's good for seventh lowest."
At least this story has the proper perspective, unlike the earlier one cited below.
However, there is another math problem: There are 50 states; Tennessee ranks 44th highest, so it should be sixth lowest.
Unless the statistics are supposed to include Washington, D.C., even though it is not, actually, a state.
Reporter Cate, though, goes on to make some good points far too many reporters don't seek.
"Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said when local taxes and fees are combined Georgians have the 17th lowest tax burden."
Here are the last two paragraphs: "Mr. McCutchen said if anything, state leaders are likely to look for ways to reduce the tax burden further.
"'It's what people want,' he said. 'Every dollar of taxes is forcibly taking away (someone's) money.'"
Such an accurate portrayal of the source of "government money" is unfortunately rare in "news" papers.
There is one problem, not so much with Cate's story, but with the particular analysis.
Take all the revenue, divide that number by the state's population, one gets the per capita number.
A more accurate analysis of a particular tax burden -- and I do like Cate's use of the phrase "tax burden" -- would describe the comparative rates. In a state filled with Mormons, Catholics, and Hillbillies, for example, families would tend to have more members; so taking some kind of total tax burden and dividing it among the numbers of population would not yield an accurate picture of the tax situation.
What is the rate of income tax? What is the percentage of sales tax? What are the assessment rates of property taxes?
"Averages" can be very misleading, and I'm sure neither reporters nor government officials would ever want us to be misinformed.

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