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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) I wish Chafee had listened to his own rhetoric

March 20, 2011

I don’t like paying taxes anymore than the next guy, perhaps even less.
I don’t like seeing taxes rise anymore than the next guy, either, nor seeing taxes applied to things that have been exempt from tax up until now.
That is particularly true if the next guy is rich, because they hate paying taxes more than just about anyone else, and they make a bigger stink about it than the average guy. Not only that, but they have the clout with lawmakers to make sure that it is us, not them, who pay to run the government and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to keep making money.
That is surely one reason why Gov. Lincoln Chafee picked the sales tax, the one that hits the middle class and working class folk especially hard, to raise, because if he raised the income tax on the wealthy, they would have been all worked up in a lather calling him a liberal and all kinds of other mean, nasty ugly things.
Chafee was even asked why he didn’t propose a tax on high-income Rhode Islanders and he answered that they would move away if they were asked to pay more taxes. So I guess it made sense to him to tax the people who are stuck here — the middle class and working class people whose incomes have stagnated, dropped in some cases, over the past decade or more — the people who have to stick with their current job to keep their health insurance. It’s like the early days of the Industrial Revolution here, when the factory owners paid puny wages, because if they paid a decent wage where their workers could save up a little money, the workers might join the western migration and move away.
Despite all the hollering about Chafee’s sales tax plan, he did have to raise taxes.
All of the cutting had already been done. Former Gov. Donald Carcieri saw to that; he cut everything there was to cut and then some.
Carcieri frequently preached that there were three buckets of state expenditures — personnel costs, social service agencies and aid to cities and towns.
Well, he wiped out most aid to cities and towns except school aid, which he cut to the bone.
Carcieri virtually made his political name cutting state employees — bringing the number of full-time equivalent employees to the lowest number in memory, slicing their health benefits (they are still covered by the inferior United Healthcare) and making them pay more for them, and taking a hatchet for several different whacks over a series of years at their pensions.
And he cut social service programs off at the knees, ratcheting down the income levels at which families would be eligible to get RIte Care and day care services.
For most of that time, high-income Rhode Islanders were able to avail themselves of the flat tax and a whole raft of “tax credits” that rich people could buy up to lessen their tax burden further. If all that welfare for the rich had bought us more jobs or a better economy, an argument could be made that it was worth it. But it didn’t, did it?
By the time Carcieri was done, there was precious little for Chafee to cut, so he was left with the option of increasing revenue, which, no matter how you spin it, means taxes.
Chafee said he chose the sales tax because he thinks that is the tax that least impacts economic growth.
I kinda wish he had listened a little more carefully to his own campaign rhetoric and done something to ameliorate the property tax.
Want to cut taxes, eliminate duplicative government services by consolidating what is being done by 36 separate school districts and improve public education while cutting its costs? Then get rid of all those school districts with their top-heavy administrative staffs and have on statewide school district that you fund with income taxes, sales taxes and lottery receipts, all but eliminating property taxes.
But Chafee isn’t touching that one with a 10-foot pole.
So he is instead looking to slap a tax on whole array of things that haven’t until now been subject to taxes.
You remember those stories the day after Chafee’s budget speech when reporters descended on Chafee’s barber, Ernie, to get his philosophy about the tax on haircutting? Well, I visited my barber last week and you should have heard him when I brought up the subject. Let’s just say that Al the Barber’s comments easily exceeded the PG-13 standard.
But even if Chafee is 50-50 at the barber poll, the ladies’ hairdressers are lining up strongly against his proposed tax.
We will see between now and June which service industries in the state have clout and which don’t as all of them fight to remain exempt from the sales taxes. You notice the governor didn’t even try to tax lawyer’s fees, a proposal that would have surely been dead-on-arrival in the attorney-heavy General Assembly. Too bad most lobbyists are lawyers, because if you could tax what lobbyists are going to charge for the elbowing they will be doing in the House and Senate finance committees this session, the state might be able to build up a budget surplus that could last for several years.

On compassion
Making medical marijuana legal for people with degenerative illnesses and chronic pain was a good and compassionate thing for the General Assembly to do. Likewise, establishing legal dispensaries, which they choose to call compassion centers, was a wise second step.
But the three compassion centers that have gotten the green light from the Department of Health can’t be allowed to be the only resource for medical marijuana patients. Forcing all patients to use one of the government-licensed monopolies would be unworkable.
From the interviews and news reports available so far, these compassion centers seem to be anticipating charging prices that are going to be way beyond the means of a cancer patient who can no longer work for a living and is probably spending a head-spinning amount on other medication. The proprietor of the proposed Portsmouth compassion center told Channel 12 Newsmakers last weekend that they will likely charge $300 to $350 per ounce for the high-grade marijuana they will be selling. He said there would be a sliding scale of prices depending on income, but still, few people with debilitating diseases are going to be able to afford even the discounted price. Let’s face it, no health insurance plan is going to cover the cost of medical marijuana, and our governor has stated his intention to slap a tax on the state’s compsssion.
Several members of the General Assembly have said that, once the compassion centers are up and running, they want to discontinue the current practice of allowing patients to designate two caregivers who grow or otherwise obtain the drug for them. That would be a bad and counterproductive idea.
Have the compassion centers for patients who can afford the convenience, but let caregivers who can grow the medicine or otherwise obtain it at a lower cost continue to do so.

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