Legislative leaders, including House Speaker David Ralston, are acting pretty embarrassed by their high-profile failure to pass a tax-reform package.
They ought to be. And they have only made things worse by trying to blame others for a task they themselves mishandled.
Let’s review the history, shall we?
Legislators appoint a blue-ribbon commission of business leaders and economists to craft a tax-reform package. After months of work, the commission issues a final report and makes two important points:
– Its recommendations should be seen as a balanced package and should not be cherry-picked for its most appealing provisions.
– While tax reform is needed, it cannot be justified as an economic development program because Georgia is already one of the lowest-tax, business-friendly states in the country.
Republican leaders — excluding the public, Democrats and members of their own party from the process — then proceed to do exactly what the experts advised against, cherry-picking the commission report of its most appealing provisions and trying to justify it in terms of economic development.
However, once their secretly drafted plan is revealed, it’s greeted with harsh criticism. House Democrats distribute data documenting that the plan will raise taxes for most Georgians with an income under $180,000, and cut taxes for everyone making more than that. Those with incomes of more than $500,000 would get an average tax cut of 16 percent.
Oops! That doesn’t go over very well.
Republicans withdraw the bill and retreat back into double-secret negotiations. They emerge with another version that still raises taxes on most Georgians, but to a lesser degree than the first bill. However, data released by House Democrats reveal that the bill will produce a $220 million loss of revenue at a time when the state budget has already been hacked into ground beef.
Republicans withdraw the bill yet again and retreat back into double-secret negotiations. They emerge with a third version that still raises taxes on most Georgians, but to a still lesser degree than the first two bills, while still cutting state revenue.
By now, only two days are left in the session. Many of their own constituents, including the Tea Party, are now on to the reality that “tax reform” is actually an effort to impose higher taxes on most Georgians on behalf of the exalted few, and they don’t like it. Ralston and other legislative leaders realize don’t have the votes to pass their bill, and rather than see it defeated, they withdraw it.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Ralston and House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal then tried to shift the blame for their failure anywhere but themselves.
For example, they questioned the accuracy and even the honesty of data generated by Georgia State University’s Fiscal Research Center about the impact of various reform proposals, even going so far as to suggest they might seek a less biased data source in the future.
Presumably, that means a source willing to tell them what they want to hear. Because here’s the thing about data: If you rush the writing of complex tax legislation, you’re going to get rushed data.
More importantly, if you stipulate that a proposal is going to be revenue neutral, and that business and the wealthy get a tax cut, you guarantee that taxes for everybody else are going to increase. It doesn’t matter who or how you add it up — you can do it on a computer, a slide rule or a Chinese abacus, it still comes out the same.
In that sense, the tax burden is like a balloon — when you squeeze it at one end, the other end is going to get bigger. And there’s no way around it.
Ralston also took a shot at House Democrats, complaining that “members of the minority party were quick to throw stones” and make it partisan.
If so, that’s a direct result of Ralston’s own exclusionary strategy, in which he and other leaders tried to muscle the bill into law without allowing any outside input or amendments, even from members of their own party. Throwing stones, metaphorically speaking, was the only option Ralston gave them.
His real problem, I suspect, was that they threw those stones so accurately.