Time for Georgians to get real on taxes
Years of economic prosperity have spoiled Americans. We have grown used to a culture of credit and immediate gratification. What the current economic crisis compels us to do - as Americans and as Georgians - is to get real. We must acknowledge in a time of economic decline that services have costs, that government is a tool, not a weapon, and that taxes are a current payment and a future investment in a healthy, vibrant community.
It is political suicide to laud the virtue of taxes. From the inception of this nation, opposition to them has been the clarion cry of revolution, unless we listen closely to history. The rebels in Boston were not protesting the tax on tea - they protested the break between what they were exhorted to pay and the services they received. The answer was not, as some would have you believe, to eliminate taxes. Instead, it was to demand a closer union between the people and their government - between taxes and their uses.
Georgia has thrived because it has hewn to a set of conservative principles. We have grown our state carefully, balanced our budgets thoughtfully and spread the responsibility fairly. No one is exempt from the shared costs of public safety, education and transportation. Instead of asking any single group to shoulder an undue burden, we wisely have spread the cost of advancement across all of our citizens. Income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes are low, both in real terms and when compared to other states. When states without one tax or the other are held up as exemplars, the question always should be: How high are those states' other taxes? Does the absence of an income tax result in skyrocketing sales taxes? Do unduly high property taxes hide income tax evasion?
In Georgia, the answer to who contributes traditionally has been a reflection of our state motto: Wisdom, Justice and Moderation. Our taxes are wisely low, justly spread across economic classes and moderate for each payer.
In recent years, however, we have become swept up in a frenzy of doubt about our 200- year history of smart, thoughtful growth. We have ignored the singular success of Georgia in stretching every dollar and looked instead to national screeds against taxation that owe little to economic reality. In the name of a good sound bite, we have strangled our schools and robbed citizens of local control. From a temporary perch in Atlanta, legislators have stolen the birthright of all Georgians to succeed through deliberate, careful action. We have promised salvation through slashing government programs. The result has been a lowering of standards and rising marks on the worst rankings: infant mortality, working-family poverty, low academic achievement and traffic congestion. In the name of "tax relief," we have set ourselves on a path toward undoing the progress that put Georgia ahead of other regional states. More and more, North Carolina and Tennessee are receiving the plaudits that once belonged to the innovators of Georgia.
Taxes are not fun. But they are necessary. Every penny represents a payment for a healthy, well-educated work force able to get to good jobs on time, without fear of rampant crime or unsafe drinking water. And tax reform is needed. We must fix a broken assessment process that treats a McMansion and a modest 30-year-old bungalow the same. The power to fairly contest appraisals should be in the hands of the homeowner, not the tax assessor. We need to collect the almost $1.5 billion in estimated sales taxes that we pay every day. Because of understaffing and selfreporting, our sales taxes never make it to the local governments they are intended to support. We have to improve our tax incentives for businesses to ensure they are usable by manufacturers and entrepreneurs bringing jobs to Georgians. In the coming weeks, I, along with several of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, will introduce bills designed to achieve real tax relief. I urge Georgians to pay attention and to demand action by the General Assembly. We have to get real - and now is the time to begin.
• State Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, represents parts of Atlanta, Decatur and DeKalb County in the Georgia General Assembly. This commentary was provided through the Georgia Online News Service. Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, February 15, 2009