Arbitrarily limiting revenues and cutting critical services doesn’t boost efficiency; it just shifts the burden onto citizens.
The 2013 tax-filing deadline is just a few days behind us, but many Republican members of Congress have already started talking about this year’s revenue intake. Due to CBO projections that federal revenues in 2013 will be the highest in history, Republicans are arguing that the real issue with government is that it has a serious spending problem, and that it is too big and too inefficient to allow for domestic economic prosperity. Predictably, their solution to this problem is to cut taxes and spending. But this approach could actually create more of the inefficiency they claim to oppose.
If we want to build a more efficient government and increase economic prosperity, we should not slash critical government services or restrict revenues across the board. In fact, in a still weak and recovering economy, limiting revenues can heighten inefficiencies in government in a way that exacerbates resource inequalities. We can look to the effects of state property tax caps in Massachusetts and California as local-scale examples of what happens when we try to shrink government just for the sake of shrinking it.
In 1978, at the height of an anti-tax wave, California voters passed proposition 13, a cap on residential and commercial property taxes. Under the new law, increases in tax rates on assessed real property values essentially cannot exceed 2 percent per year. In addition, the law imposed two strict requirements for how new state and local revenues can be raised: State taxes can only be increased either by ballot or with a supermajority vote in both houses of the state legislature, and special-purpose taxes by local governments can only be increased by a supermajority of votes in a local election.
Similarly, Massachusetts’ proposition 2 ½, passed in 1980, limited property tax revenues to 2.5 percent of an area’s assessed property value while also capping growth in revenue from those assessments to 2.5 percent per annum.
Arguments in favor of these initiatives assert that caps on taxes are a needed move to increase government efficiency and to relieve strained families from the economic burden of higher taxes. Essentially the same ideas are permeating the national debate around the federal budget and deficit reduction as deficit hawks claim that government is too big and its spending is too much of a burden on the economy. Recently, as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konzcal notes, evidence has been growing that this argument is built on shaky ground.
Caps on annual property assessments, which had been a statistically stable source of revenue, forced municipalities to scramble to adjust to the permanent loss of resources, resulting in haphazard cuts and unreliable financial decision-making. Coupled with the movement to give more direct power over taxation to the voters (see CA proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act), this state of uncertainty has only calcified – and uncertainty does not breed the efficient government systems that anti-tax advocates have promised.
Furthermore, instead of providing “efficiency savings” to state and local government, reduced revenues have simply shifted the burden of providing services from a stable entity onto the backs of the affected communities. The price of basic government operations doesn’t suddenly get cheaper because there is less revenue. It forces officials to sacrifice important programs to cover basic operational costs, and often the people who relied on those programs are those who can least afford to take the sudden hit. For local low- and middle-income communities in California and Massachusetts, this meant school funding shortages that exist to this day. At the federal level, the mounting effects of sequestration on various services and workers are setting up similar long-term problems.
Everything is amplified in a weak or recovering economy. Direct cuts to services that low- and middle-income communities rely on only exacerbate economic inequality and further hamper future prosperity. Families who already are having difficulty paying bills will be forced to deal with new challenges, from cuts to student aid and Medicaid to being laid off or furloughed.
In setting our fiscal course for the next several years, Congress should take a hard look at the risks taken by the states and avoid caving into the idea that revenue is a necessary evil to be restricted as much as possible. We can agree that our common goal is a smarter, more efficient government; however, cutting revenue streams to force reform is not the smartest, most efficient policy to achieve that goal.
Joelle Gamble is Deputy Field Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.