good news: Despite three years of receiving insufficient revenue to cover the
big-spending ways enabled by the 1990s stock market and economic boom,
Michigan’s political establishment has not tried to raise general income, sales,
property or business taxes. Indeed, income tax cuts that had been enacted during
the "fat years" have gone forward, albeit with one postponement.
Now, the bad news: While state
legislators find themselves constrained by public intolerance for general tax
hikes, they have found many ways to avoid spending cuts by increasing more
narrowly targeted taxes or fees. Here is a list of the most significant of
Senate Bill 852 increased the state income tax rate from 3.9 percent to
4.0 percent between Jan. 1, 2004 and July 1, 2004, postponing a previously
enacted rate cut. This caused a one-time $77 million loss to taxpayers,
offset somewhat by certain Single Business Tax cuts.
Senate Bill 509 assesses an annual $100 "driver responsibility fee" on
individuals who accumulate seven or more "points" on their driving records over two
years, and it imposes additional fees for specific offenses. A $300 fine for
driving without a proof-of-insurance form was later repealed. The remaining
provisions will transfer approximately $50 million annually from motorists to
These tax and fee increases will
wrest some $260 million in one-time wealth transfers from citizens, and more
than $500 million more in ongoing annual levies, not including the potentially
massive "Internet tax" (HB 5504). And this list is not exhaustive — there were
many other targeted tax and fee hikes, including many that raise the cost of
doing business in Michigan.
Compared to the impact that permanently higher income,
property and business taxes would have on taxpayers and our economy, the tax
and fee increases listed here are less damaging. They are still bad news for
Michigan, though. According to
Mackinac Center econometric research, the tobacco tax increase alone will
cost the state some 5,000 jobs.
In addition, all of these
revenue increases allow legislators to postpone the necessary task of scaling
back the size and scope of Michigan’s state government. Our per-capita state-and-local tax burden is still
above the national average. To survive in an unforgivingly competitive world economy, this
must change, and this means government must get smaller.
And the so-called "sin taxes,"
which are targeted at politically vulnerable groups like smokers, have
additional costs. The tobacco tax, for instance, will increase the incentive for
smuggling and related criminal activity. Moreover, these "consumption" taxes could become a bad legislative habit. Today it is smokers and bad
drivers who pay more, but attempts to increase liquor taxes are sure to return,
and various proposals to tax fatty foods are waiting in the wings. One day,
badgered Michiganians may be thinking, "First they came for the smokers, and I
didn’t complain; then, the drinkers; then, the gluttons — and when they came for
me, I had no grounds to complain."
The Legislature's recent tax and fee increases show
that the pressure to spend still overcomes politicians’ recognition that
Michigan’s taxes and government will need to get smaller.
This is a failure of will that has a very real cost to our economy and our freedom.
Jack McHugh is legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center
for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in
Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted,
provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.