June 10, 2013

The Capital Times: Out with progressive, in with regressive state taxes

media mention

(Original Post)

June 08, 2013 4:45 am  •  JOEL McNALLY | state columnist

Remember back when Wisconsin was proud to be one of the most progressive states in the nation?

Even more importantly, do you remember the states we all held in contempt for exactly the opposite distinction — being the most regressive states in what was otherwise a pretty great country?

Regressive states were usually located in the unenlightened South. They were unfairly caricatured in the broadest strokes as bastions of public ignorance populated by uneducated hicks with poor dental care.

Well, hold on to your teeth.

Our state government is now controlled by politicians so far to the right not only do they consider progressive a dirty word, but they’re actually proud to be transforming Wisconsin into a regressive state.

Most people realize we’ve been moving backward ever since Republican Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010.

But when Walker began his administration by making the deepest cuts in state history to every level of education, few realized his ultimate goal might be to turn Wisconsin into an ignorant, regressive state.

Yet that is exactly what Republican state Rep. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield publicly suggested as he proposed driving a stake through progressive taxation in Wisconsin by more than doubling Walker’s enormous tax cuts to the wealthy while scattering chicken feed to all the rest of us.

Walker proposed spending $343 million of a budget surplus created when he took money away from education, health care and other state services to give huge tax cuts to the wealthy and, oh, maybe about a hundred bucks to any middle-class taxpayer.

Kooyenga thought that was fine as far as it went, but that it didn’t give nearly enough public money to rich people. So he proposed more than doubling Walker’s generosity to the super rich by adding another $450 million in tax cuts, also overwhelmingly tilted toward the rich.

The Joint Finance Committee took Walker and Kooyenga’s proposals and agreed on a $651 million tax cut that now goes to the Assembly and Senate as part of the 2013-15 budget. The tax plan collapses the current five tax brackets into four; Kooyenga originally wanted to reduce the brackets to three.

Those funds would be diverted from the needs of everyone in the state into the already-bulging pockets of those who need the least.

The Wisconsin Council on Children and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in Washington, D.C., who’d already criticized Walker’s regressive tax cuts, reported Kooyenga’s plan would give two-thirds of the money to the top 20 percent of taxpayers with an average annual income of $183,000. One-third of that would go to the top 5 percent, averaging $392,000 a year.

Kooyenga is not embarrassed when someone uses the R word to describe his tax cut. In fact, he says replacing Wisconsin’s progressive income tax system with a regressive one is the whole idea.

Kooyenga says Wisconsin’s progressive income tax began back in 1911 in those bad, old days of progressive government. I wonder which of those crazy, liberal La Follettes could have been governor back then.

Wait. Here it is. The governor in 1911 was Francis McGovern, a Republican. That was back when everyone was proud of making Wisconsin a progressive state, even Republicans.

As a matter of fact, Fighting Bob La Follette and his son Philip, Wisconsin’s best-known progressive governors, were progressive Republicans.

The progressive income tax wasn’t based on party politics. It was based on simple fairness. Those who had more should pay more and those who had less should pay less.

Tax fairness is not a concept embraced by right-wing Republicans like Walker and Kooyenga.

Walker, who claims to be opposed to raising taxes ever, actually raised taxes for the poorest people in Wisconsin in his first budget by cutting homestead and earned income tax credits for the poor.

Kooyenga speaks admiringly of Illinois’s clearly regressive flat state income tax.

“We have a long ways to go in Wisconsin,” he said, openly slavering over the good fortune of the rich in Illinois. “Illinois millionaires … pay less of a rate in taxes than Wisconsin’s lower-income, middle-class families.”

Some Wisconsin politicians would look at that fact and say, “Maybe we should start targeting our tax cuts to benefit lower-income, middle-class families who need it instead of giving most of the money to rich people.”

Kooyenga looks at it and says, “Wow, we should give even more money to rich people who don’t need it so eventually they won’t have to pay any more than lower-income, middle-class families.”

What every ordinary taxpayer should ask is: How can these guys get away with cutting jobs, wages, education, health care, transportation, public safety and environmental beauty benefiting everyone in the state in order to brazenly shower hundreds of millions of dollars on a small number of wealthy voters to pad their already-enormous fortunes?

It doesn’t make any sense unless we’re so blinded by the possibility of having a few shiny pennies tossed our way that we’ve already become one of those toothless bastions of public ignorance.