April 11, 2007

A New "Wheel Tax" in Indiana?

The developing debate over how Indiana local governments ought to be funded has centered, so far, on the local property tax and the conditions under which locals should be allowed to levy income taxes to pay for property tax cuts. But there's a new game in town: Rep. Chet Dobis suggests allowing local governments in northwestern Indiana the option of levying a "wheel tax" of up to $50 per vehicle to pay for an expanded commuter rail system.

As a fellow Dem, Rep. Linda Lawson, helpfully points out, the car tax "is one of the most hated taxes... the people in my community... would be just outraged if we gave them another tax." And that certainly seems to be true wherever you look. Opposition to the car tax almost single-handedly got former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore elected and helped to give California Governor Gray Davis the boot. And if Connecticut voters aren't currently buying Governor Jodi Rell's plan to repeal that state's car tax, it's not because they like paying taxes on their cars.

But that's not, in itself, a sufficient reason to deny the car tax a place in a state's revenue system. Anti-tax sentiment is easy to channel, and the ease with which the car tax can be vilified is at least partially due to the number of syllables it takes to pronounce it. ("no car tax," "no death tax," "no food tax," all lend themselves very well to soundbites and slogans.)

You can also make a good case that a properly functioning property tax should take account of all kinds of property that most states currently don't tax, whether it's your car or your stock portfolio or that $3,000 Rolex. Property is wealth-- plain and simple. When states decide (as most have) that they're not gonna tax the value of your Rolex or your car or your stock portfolio, what's left is the one kind of "wealth" that is least recognizable as such-- homes. For many people, homes aren't a luxury and they aren't wealth-- at least not usable wealth.

So I've got a fair amount of sympathy for recognizing that the property tax should apply to things other than homes. Having said that, the wheel tax proposal seems like the wrong way to go, for three reasons:

1) The proposed wheel tax would be a flat-dollar amount. Maybe $10, maybe $50. But the biggest Bentley would pay the same tax as the tiniest Toyota. By comparison to the more sensible approach of taxing cars based on their value, the wheel tax proposal would be sharply more regressive-- a much worse deal for low-income families-- because $50 is a much bigger share of income for someone earning $10,000 a year than for someone earning $100,000 a year.

2) Car taxes can be written off on your federal income taxes (if you itemize) if they are based on the value of the car. If they're just a flat dollar amount, they can't. So the choice to impose the flat wheel tax basically means deciding that Indiana doesn't want the federal government to pick up part of the tab. A flat-dollar wheel tax leaves federal money on the table.

3) A "flat-dollar" tax is about as slow-growing a revenue source as you can invent. The only thing that can make revenues go up from year to year is an increase in the number of cars. (By contrast, income and sales tax collections increase, more or less, automatically with inflation.) The amount this tax brings in from each existing car actually shrinks a little bit each year: $50 a year in 2007 is worth a little bit less, after inflation, in 2008, a little bit less in 2009, etc.

As another lawmaker points out, Dobis deserves "all the credit in the world" for bringing up what is being described as a "political third rail." (Seems like Indiana has more third rails than the New York subway...) And it would be a good thing if this proposal resulted in some enlightened deliberation over the future of Indiana property taxes. But it's certainly not the fairest-- or most sustainable-- way to fund Indiana's transportation funding needs.


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