January 17, 2013

Taxation without deliberation

On Tuesday, the second day of the legislative session, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved a proposal by Gov. Nathan Deal to extend a tax on hospital revenues. The measure is supported by Republican leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly, and the full Senate could vote on the measure as early as today.

Why the rush?

The “bed tax” goes to shore up Medicaid payments to hospitals and helps the state qualify for additional federal funds. Those who support it say that some community hospitals — the numbers they cite are never the same — could close without that funding.

But the “bed tax” doesn’t expire until the end of June, and the General Assembly has until the end of this session to decide whether to renew it.

Again, why the rush?

The answer is pretty simple. Taxes aren’t popular with Georgians, especially the Republican voters that Deal and the GOP majorities in both chambers rely on. They are trying to rush it through before most of the voters have a chance to realize what they are doing. And what they are doing is very bad.

Regardless of whether you think the tax needs to be continued, the way lawmakers are doing it is downright ugly. Rather than step up and vote for a tax increase, Deal and GOP lawmakers have proposed a bill that would declare the tax a fee and give the board of the state Department of Community Health the power the to assess that fee on hospitals. That way, during primary season, they can go home to their districts, cross their fingers behind their backs and tell voters they didn’t vote for a tax increase. They only voted to allow a board of nine individuals to collect a fee if they choose.

It’s too clever by half. In fact, it’s similar to the regional transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (TSPLOSTs) the General Assembly asked voters across the state to vote on last year. They didn’t have the will to vote for a statewide penny sales tax, so they left it up to the voters. But they did everything they could to ensure that Georgians voted the way they wanted by imposing increasingly stiff financial penalties on communities that did not put the tax on the ballot or approve it. Still, most regions in the state rejected the tax.

By delegating the power to raise taxes to an appointed board, lawmakers would give up one of the Legislature’s most fundamental powers. They would also be signaling voters that they either don’t think they can justify a tax increase or that voters are too irrational to accept their explanations.

If lawmakers put the bed tax on the ballot, voters might well reject it. And if they keep rushing through gimmicky legislation without giving the public a chance to think through what they are doing, voters should reject them.

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