S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 February 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
Revolting Acts

 

[]

Tax Revolts have been part of

the American social fabric ever

since a band of crypto-Redskins

enacted the spectacular display

of bad taste and

proto-environmental terrorism

known as The Boston Tea Party. The

Whiskey Rebellion has been

temporarily nudging to attention

bored high school history

students for 200 years. The

"Tariff of Abominations" met

with bare-knuckled opposition in

South Carolina. And nothing says

more about our subconscious

desire to enter into

self-determination as the

cheapest nation in world history

than the motto "Live Free or

Die."

 

In the 18th century and into the

19th, a tax revolt was just that

— a physical refusal to

comply with tax laws. Tax

collectors were tarred and

feathered, people marched in the

street, and in extreme cases the

protestors were supressed by

local and state militae, or even

federal armies. What drove such

revolts were outrage at the tax

itself and a feeling of

injustice as to the context in

which the tax was assigned.

Taxing whiskey, for instance,

not only dealt a blow to local

economies but clearly

represented regional and class

biases — 18th century city

folk preferred wine and port,

and were only too happy to stick

it to their underrepresented,

swamp-living brethren.

 

The modern "tax revolt" has few

things in common with its

historical predecessor. For one

thing, the term has lost its

specificity. Although the phrase

is generally reserved for

initiatives and referenda

designed to limit or repeal

taxation by popular vote,

anti-tax efforts of all kinds

have appropriated the

terminology. This includes

anyone from entire state

legislatures looking to

negotiate a political advantage

to isolated citizens sympathetic

to the "Patriot" movement, who

simply refuse to pay the federal

government a dime. When zealots

speak of jackbooted ATF thugs

invading the Columbia River

basin in black helicopters,

they're never far from the

spectacle of Light-Horse Harry

Lee leading federal troops into

Western Pennsylvania to kick a

little hillbilly ass.

 

[]

By weight of analysis,

certainly, the tax revolts of

today can be seen as a

loosely-aligned political

movement, nearly three decades

old, with a distinct history and

belief system. The movement's

World War II, its perfect myth,

is the passage of California's

Proposition 13, the 1978 measure

limiting state property taxes.

Proposition 13 was an

unqualified public relations

success: 43 states implemented

similar legislation within two

years. More importantly,

believers in tax revolt consider

Proposition 13 the beginning of

an anti-tax fervor that swept

Ronald Reagan into the White

House (as opposed to alternate

explanations for Reagan's 1980

victory, such as worries over an

increased policy-formation role

for Amy Carter, a desire not to

see helicopters blow up in the

desert for no reason, or a

collective, subconscious longing

for nuclear self-immolation).

 

With Reagan in office, and the

ascendancy of non-establishment

Democrats like Bill Bradley, the

tax revolt '70s gave way to the

tax reform '80s. Revolt fever,

never far away from the minds of

conservatives, returned in

conjunction with '70s nostalgia

and the hectoring of George

Bush. The Chuck Berry of the tax

revolt resurgence is 1992's

Tabor Amendment in Colorado, an

unsexy "Taxpayers Bill of

Rights" restricting state

expenditure to incremental

growth except when popular vote

says otherwise. And now it has

its Elvis: Washington state's

Initiative 695. That measure,

passing last year when the

biggest election news was a

mayoral run-off in San

Francisco, gained more national

press than any like-minded bill

since Proposition 13.

 

[]

Initiative 695 killed

Washington's progressive license

tab fees system in favor of a

$30 per car flat rate, returning

three quarters of a billion

dollars to tax payers. In

addition, I-695 made all future

state and local tax increases

subject to public vote. Like

Proposition 13, I-695 was high

political drama. The bill's

victory over the objections of

most major newspapers, a popular

governor, and actively-spending

labor unions gave it a

Cinderella quality — or at

least a Truman over Dewey veneer

— and made a rising

political star of sponsor Tim

Eyman.

 

What distinguishes Initiative

695 from Proposition 13 is the

time in which each bill passed

and the rhetoric used to pass

it. The success of the

California measure was dependent

on taxpayer resentment fueled by

what were perceived to be

troubled economies. I-695, on

the other hand, is made possible

by a surging economy that has

resulted in an almost $1 billion

state government surplus. That

surplus allowed Eyman to foster

resentment of what many of his

opponents agreed was in some

ways an unfair tax — and who

doesn't agree that $30 is enough

for car tabs? — while

largely avoiding the need to

answer questions about potential

consequences. The surplus will

take care of it.

 

But even given this enormous

rhetorical advantage, proponents

couched their support in

general, populist, terms. Eyman

cited the bill as the success of

the "little guy" to pull an "end

run" around "Big Business, Big

Labor, and Big Media" —

scrupulously inspecific terms

that cover for the fact that

you could support Initiative 695

without believing in one

shred of supply side economics.

As such it definitely plays

in Peoria — they don't even

have to keep the camera above

the waist.It is, essentially,

an after-the-fact tax refund by

the people and for the people.

 

But there are also consequences

for the people. Drastically

changing a state's funding

mechanisms always has an impact:

even if money is found for every

service that comes up short,

decreasing a surplus can change

the way a state finances debt or

attracts investment. Ironically,

in I-695's case, what is

expected to suffer most are

those economic interests which

are directed at the working

class families who voted for the

bill. Among potential reductions

announced in Washington are

state- and county-funded

services such as immunizations,

bus service and highway

maintenance, which in turn may

to lead to a loss of jobs in

addition to decreased service.

None of the jobs affected will

be those held by those

benefiting the most in the new

level playing-field, where a

1985 Honda Accord and a brand

new Ford Excursion are one and

the same. Nor would any of the

loss in services directly effect

a successful businessman like

Eyman, who runs a mail-order

house from his home in the

suburbs.

 

[]

The future of tax revolts is in

more short-term bills (Eyman

promises a "Son of 695," rolling

back tax rates, for '00) of a

limited scope and an attempt to

capture tax revolt rhetoric for

one's own efforts. In Virginia,

a Republican majority led by

Governor Jim Gilmore calls its

own plodding, tax-reduction

governance a tax revolt —

the least-exciting rebellion

ever. Politically-exploitable

tax revolts are projected in

Internet taxation and from small

business owners. Some political

observors have even called for

Democrats to seize revolt

rhetoric for their own in

describing simplifed progressive

tax plans, banking that

America's hatred for rich people

who don't pay their share is

greater than its loathing for

politicians.

 

America's future tax policy may

be in the hands of talented

dabblers like Eyman and Third

Way politicians desperate for an

issue to exploit. When the end

result is no longer the point,

when economic policy is termed a

success solely on the basis of

its poltical reception, that end

result could very well be the

almost-poor exploiting the poor

— precisely the kind of

thing tax revolts used to be

about.

 
courtesy of 40th Street Black
 
picturesTerry Colon