There is an old saying among auditors and others who deal with financial crime: “Follow the money.” As the debate over taxes and budget cuts once again becomes more intense and as the next legislative session begins next month, I think all of us need to keep this old cliché in mind. I think one of the great problems with this debate is that it has been conducted at a level of generality and by hidden principals and their lobbyists, so that ordinary people are confused, if not misled.
I think there is a very strong argument for not raising taxes on individual Kansans and small Kansas businesses. In our current economic climate, raising such taxes would create great hardships. On the other hand, it is not at all clear to me that, in fact, many of the billions of dollars in tax exemptions that have been handed out by the Kansas Legislature in the past decade, actually have a significant benefit either for individual Kansans or for most small businesses in our state.
The whole process of granting these tax exemptions raises questions. Often these exemptions are very narrowly focused and benefit very few taxpayers. Often the impetus for granting these exemptions comes from paid lobbyists, whose interests lie in the promotion of their clients‚ financial concerns and not in the public welfare. Indeed, one might argue that many of the exemptions that have been granted over the past decade promote special interests over the public interest.
I do not mean to suggest that all tax exemptions are questionable nor that any wrongdoing has occurred. What I do suggest is that before the state further harms its educational, law enforcement, judicial, and social services structures — even its National Guard — one might legitimately ask that the public be made aware of all the literally billions of dollars in special tax benefits the Kansas Legislature has granted to individuals and businesses. The public should know who has benefited from these grants, the extent to which these grants have actually helped the state economy, and whether any of them might be revoked without harming state taxpayers and the economy in general.
It has been too easy for too many lobbyists to cry out against “raising taxes” and include every special interest exemption in that cry. Taking away “pork‚” — for that is, indeed, what many tax exemptions are — is not raising taxes on the general public and not betraying conservative economic principles. It is nothing more than recognizing that in an era of economic austerity, the public interest must be elevated over special interests.