Car Tax Shame All Around
It’s always appropriate to call for a greater sense of shame among Rhode Island’s politicians, but Ed Achorn was a little too specific in his column, last week:
The politicians of Rhode Island would be ashamed of themselves, had they not lost the capacity for feeling shame long ago. Their determination to balance their enormous budgets, larded with stunning benefits for special interests, on the breaking backs of struggling working people is outrageous.
I write of the General Assembly’s action in permitting cities and towns to hike property taxes on the most shabby motor vehicles. Now, some municipalities are hammering people who own anything valued at $500 or more (according to the municipalities’ highly skewed definition).
The reality must be acknowledged that municipal governments didn’t have to increase their revenue from the car tax. Other means exist for them to absorb losses in money that the state, in its mismanagement, is unable to provide. For one, lost revenue is among the exemptions that allow them to raise property taxes beyond the cap; going that route would have given residents a stronger sense and say in whether their hometowns raised taxes at all. More wisely, local governments could simply have cut back spending, even though it might mean reducing the scope of their activities. We can’t forget that the General Assembly also gave cities and towns permission to reduce school budgets for a couple of years, temporarily disengaging the statutory ratchet that requires school spending to go in no direction but up.
Yes, state legislators ought to feel shame that the tools that they leave to municipalities to balance budgets are so limited. Taxing clunkers was the easiest and most visible means of compensating for losses in state aid, and the General Assembly should have taken the opportunity of hardship to tone down the demands that it makes on local governments, from minimum manning to basic education plan (BEP) requirements to the way in which labor contracts must be negotiated.
The real shame, however, belongs with the people of Rhode Island, who continue to accept government as it is. Apathetic or on the take, too many voters implicitly agree that this is the way things ought to be.