THE SUN IS purple.
The sky is orange.
A $1.5 billion net tax cut is a plan to fix our roads.
A plan to spend an extra $350 million a year on our schools and an extra $1 billion on our roads is a tax cut.
A Senate plan that raises taxes more than the House plan is a compromise with the governor’s plan to cut taxes.
Replacing a law that requires the state to give 4.5 percent of its annual revenue to cities and counties with one that requires significantly less than that is a plan to increase local government funding.
Normally I would say those statements are equally true (which is to say: completely untrue), but after that whole white-and-gold/black-and-blue dress controversy, I don’t want to insult people by suggesting that my opposite-color examples can compete with the mischaracterizations we’ve been seeing lately on taxes and spending.
If listening to S.C. politicians talk about money has you a bit dizzy, it’s no wonder: It’s all spin.
Clearly, the spin isn’t limited to one side of the ideological battle over whether we ought to address our money problems by increasing taxes or by slashing them. And at least Gov. Nikki Haley is being straight-up about her intentions (if not about the realities of budgeting) when she talks to her base: Her internet ads entice people to go to her tax-plan website (note that it’s not a road-plan web site) and find out about the “largest tax cut in the history of our state.”
Not so much when she steps away from her base and tries to characterize her $1.5 billion net tax cut as a plan to patch our potholes and bolster our bridges and otherwise make up for a decade or two of neglect of our infrastructure. Frankly, it would be easier to fix our roads without touching the tax code, because then we’d only have to find $400 million a year to cut from the rest of state spending, instead of the $1.5 billion in cuts that her plan would require.
Even House leaders rolled out their middle-ground plan by calling it “a way to repair our roads without passing the burden onto South Carolina taxpayers.” That claim from House Speaker Jay Lucas referred to the fact that the plan he’s co-sponsoring would steal some money from the general fund, and would be funded in part by out-of-state drivers who would have to pay more for gasoline — but it glosses over the fact that the plan still would raise taxes on cars and gas by $350 million per year.
But that wasn’t as vertiginous as Sen. Ray Cleary waxing eloquent on the virtue of compromise — and he is absolutely right about that — and then offering up his plan to raise taxes by $800 million or so to pay for roads as the great compromise. Hmmm. Haley plan: Cut taxes by $1.5 billion a year. House plan: Raise taxes by $350 million per year. Cleary plan: Raise taxes by $800 million a year.
Silly me: I thought compromise tended to land in the middle — or at least at some point between the extremes.
That’s not to say Sen. Cleary’s plan isn’t useful: It very clearly shows how moderate the House plan is. It also includes some smart ideas, such as eliminating that sop-to-special-interests $300 sales tax cap on automobiles, and it takes a run at our promiscuous sales-tax loopholes.
So does the bill proposed by Rep Jenny Horne to lift $2 billion a year in sales tax exemptions, institute a statewide property tax on industrial and business property and eliminate the local school property taxes on that property. The statewide property tax is a very smart idea, which acknowledges that all South Carolinians pay for the incentives that lure major manufacturers to our state, and so all children should benefit from the property taxes they pay. Also smart is streamlining the way state revenue is distributed to school districts, and it’s fabulous to see not one but two legislators rolling out serious efforts to remove some of the loopholes from our tax code.
But her schools and roads plan involves an even larger net tax increase than Sen. Cleary’s, which is to say that it is not, as one news article put it, a plan that “cuts taxes.”
If I stretch far enough, I can even find something positive about Rep. Jimmy Merrill’s bill, which the House passed Thursday, that locks in the $75 million-a-year deficit in state funding for cities and counties (that’s a quarter of what state law requires) but then promises to start increasing funding at the rate that state revenue goes up. Which is this: It isn’t as bad as Rep. Merrill’s original proposal, which was to increase funding at half the rate state revenue increases — or less.
I understand that voters don’t like taxes.
And they do like tax cuts.
But the fact is that if you want to spend more money on roads, you have to … spend more on roads.
If you want to cut taxes, you have to … cut taxes.
If you want to compromise, you have to … compromise.
If you want to give more money to local governments, you have to … give more money to local governments.
You can’t just say you’re doing those things, and present a plan that does the opposite. That’s not just stretching the truth; that’s shredding it.
And that’s a great way to make people distrust your other claims as well.