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Who Should Pay For Good Public Programs?
Oct 17, 2012
My 2012 ballot is somewhat humdrum: mark the D's, vote no on Governor Daugaard's really bad ideas (Referred Laws 14 and 16), and make sure I affix enough postage. Simple.
Initiated Measure 15 is not so simple. More than 33,000 signatories placed IM 15 on the ballot to ask us to consider increasing our state sales tax from 4% to 5% to boost funding for K-12 education and Medicaid.
Practically, I should find voting for IM 15 easy. I teach. I have a daughter in public school. Passing IM 15 means $91 million more for K-12 education, or about $730 more for each student. With 20 kids in her first-grade class, that's over $14,000 worth of new books, field trips, art supplies and other practical things that could help my daughter learn more.
Politically, I could find IM 15 useful in challenging some vital South Dakota Republican mythology. I've heard Republican legislators fantasize out loud that they have a mandate from the voters not to raise taxes. They claim that they'd like to increase funding for education and other programs but that the voters won't stand for any tax increases. These lazy statesmen thus justify their own inability and unwillingness to seek new revenue to solve policy problems.
Passing IM 15 at the ballot box would repudiate this self-justifying myth. It would say to Republican legislators, "The voters think education and health care are important enough to spend more money on; why don't you?"
But one key principle keeps me in doubt on IM 15: we would expand our reliance on a regressive tax. The poorest 40% of wage-earners would pay a touch over 1% of their income to cover this tax increase, while the richest 20% would pay just 0.3% more from their income. South Dakota's millionaires would pay just 0.1% more out of their hefty pocketbooks. In practical terms, the blue-collar family down the street has to find a way to cut out three days' worth of meals and other expenses to pay for this tax increase; your CEO neighbor skips one fancy dinner at Minerva's and turns off the contributions to her hedge fund for an afternoon.
K-12 education and Medicaid are vital public services. Our legislature lacks the political will to fund them properly. But can we justify funding public services by making South Dakota's tax system even more unfair to lower-income people?
That's the hardest question South Dakotans face on this year's ballot.
Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.