The word “tax” does not normally grab my attention. Especially in May.
I think about taxes exactly four times a year, when I make estimated payments and when I slog through our returns. In early April, I say a few bad words, write some more checks, seal everything up in fat manila envelopes and drop it all in the mailbox. Done thinking about it.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Yes, I know better. If I were a devoted Statehouse reporter, a passionate activist or even a reasonably focused person, I’d pay much greater attention to the tax debates in Topeka (and in Washington, for that matter). But I am not any of those things. I’m busy with my life and cynical about politics, and if you’re a headline writer and you want me to read a story, you’d better not put the word “tax” in that headline.
Fortunately, I have an in-house Concerned Citizen to keep track of all things tax-policy-related. He’s especially concerned about our state senator, Jeff Melcher, for a long list of reasons that I was keeping track of for a while but then got weary of hearing about, so I started doing that thing where you just nod and smile politely and make vague noises of agreement every time the subject comes up. It’s easier that way.
It’s also easier not to accompany my Concerned Citizen to meetings of the elementary school PTO or the Mainstream Coalition, or to listen when he calls in to radio shows to declare his disdain for Melcher’s views on guns in schools, third-grade literacy testing, special-needs education and property-tax exemptions for private health clubs.
It was during one of my recent nod-and-smile-politely routines that I learned about the grocery fuss. Unlike tax policy in general, eating
something I care about, and I’ve always wondered how it is that so many states — dozens, apparently — get by just fine without a state sales tax on groceries, while a retrograde few seem to think their fiscal houses would crumble without it.
Turns out that when you cut income taxes and plan to keep cutting them, you have to find some other tax that you can live with, even if you’re a Republican in Kansas. Thus the state Senate debate that led Melcher to speculate that if taxes on groceries were reduced, “It seems to me we are encouraging the behavior of purchasing food and discouraging the behavior of purchasing anything else.”
Now that’s insight. If we encourage the behavior of purchasing food, what’s next? Eating it? Then people will just want more! And think of the economic repercussions for non-food-related industries. As The Huffington Post put it after learning of Melcher’s remark, “Why go to a movie when you can buy a bunch of bell peppers and chow down? Who is going to gas up their car when they could instead enjoy a delicious loaf of challah bread?”
Melcher made numerous “Quote of the Day” lists on political blogs with that one. And he finally made it into my column, when the last thing I wanted to write about (again) was Kansas politics.
That’s the thing about elected officials in Kansas — they never disappoint. No matter how dull the broader debate, you can count on some inane comment to spice things up. Fortunately for Melcher, the notion that buying food instead of other things is a behavior that should not be encouraged barely scratches the surface of Kansas political battiness. Remember a few years back when a state senator — a woman, no less — said that women shouldn’t have been given the right to vote? And then there was the time we had hearings on evolution. In the 21st century.
Melcher’s quote was more likely a case of ill-chosen words than anything else, and he hasn’t been in office long enough to have much of a track record. But plenty of his colleagues have been, and when people like me turn away from the tax headlines instead of keeping tabs on Topeka, we are a big part of the problem.
To paraphrase Melcher, that’s when it seems to me we are encouraging the behavior of public apathy and discouraging the behavior of responsible governance.