Of all the reasons to vote for (or against) the proposal to repeal our most recent effort at tax reform, which is on the ballot June 8, the most insidious is “tax exporting.”

Taxes are the price we pay for the public services we want. The idea that we can solve our fiscal problems by getting someone else to pay is, at best, sticking our heads in the sand and, at worst, evasive, irresponsible and likely to make the problem worse.

Extending the sales tax to services is good because it broadens the tax base, makes it a more accurate reflection of what we really do, gives more people “some skin in the game” and diminishes the up and down cycles that wreak havoc on our public budgets.

Of course those who sell services will cry bloody murder. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve been getting a free ride from car dealers, restaurants and building supply stores for generations. Saying the proposed reform may (at least in the short run) hurt their businesses is true. But that isn’t a reason to hurt someone else’s business more.

Our tax system is about us and should be built on principles of equity and efficiency rather than tossed around like a hot potato that can be made someone else’s problem.

But instead of addressing such self-serving diversions directly, proponents of the reform too often simply reinforce them by falling back on the “but out-of-staters will pay much of the increase” justification. High taxes thus joins the litany of other problems we didn’t cause and thus shouldn’t have to pay for.

“I didn’t cause the credit crisis; it’s the fault of big banks and Wall Street.” “I didn’t cause the health care crisis; it’s the fault of big insurance and drug companies.” “I didn’t cause the fiscal crisis; it’s the fault of politicians and poor people.”

And our conclusion from all these cries of innocent victimhood? “Let someone else pay to fix it.”

This idea that we can get somebody else — tourists, summer residents, visitors — to pay for what we’ve voted to spend on public services is another manifestation of the culture of villains and victims that diverts attention from our own responsibilities.

Traders at Goldman Sachs may be stunningly greedy, but blaming them for the credit crisis is like blaming the ants for ruining a picnic on the grass. Who spilled all the sugar?

We stood by while Congress pushed the American Dream of home ownership far beyond the American Responsibility to buy only what we can pay for. And, we used the bubble in real estate prices to turn our homes into personal ATM machines.

It’s easy to blame the problem on Wall Street, but its solution lies in looking in the financial mirror.

Managers at health insurance companies may be breathtakingly heartless, and their marketers and utilization managers devious and misleading. But we’re the ones that insist that everything and everyone be covered under every policy and then expect our employers to buy the insurance for us.

Is it any wonder that health care costs are exploding when neither the people who want care nor those who provide it have anything to do with how it’s paid for? Would we want our employers negotiating with our banks to decide what sort of housing we can have? I doubt it.

Tax exporting is just another way of trying — literally — to pass the buck. The only way to get our fiscal house in order is to face the facts — and to do it together.

We need to decide what public services we want and can afford, and we need to find a fair and efficient way for all of us to kick in to cover the bill.

Our democratic form of government will not long endure if we consider every voice in our public debate as either a villain or a victim.

Neither will our public services.

We must come to see ourselves, all of us — individuals, businesses, young people, old people, longtime residents, periodic residents, visitors — as part of the community that is Maine. If we don’t, it will cease to be a community and much that we cherish about the place will be lost.

And that loss will reveal the true triviality of whatever gains we might achieve by “getting someone else to pay.”

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]