Commentary: Turning taxes right side up

In considering local tax hikes, our elected officials should let the Founding Fathers be their guide.

The Federalist Papers were written in 1787 to persuade the voters of New York to adopt the Constitution approved in Philadelphia that same year. On average, those voters had fourth grade education, but they had no problem dealing with the sophisticated arguments presented by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.

In Federalist #10, Madison addressed the problem of factions, the dangers they pose to representative government, and how those deleterious effects might be avoided. In fact, the Federalist Papers brilliantly argue that, for the first time in history, the Constitution successfully solves the problem.

In recent years, an increasingly powerful faction has emerged, one scarcely recognized in 1787. Its impact has been identified in illuminating studies by Public Choice theorists, yet, all too often, elected officials ignore this faction, and are thus incapable of avoiding its deleterious effects.

That newly identified faction is government itself – and, specifically, the permanent bureaucracy, at every level. And for years, our own Warren County supervisors have failed to recognize that fact. As a result, they have been governing our county essentially upside down.

For years, the board has relied on its bureaucracy for guidance on both priorities and budgets. Employees tell the supervisors, “Look, here’s what we can do with a 2 percent tax increase, but look what we can do with 3 percent, or even 5 percent!”

The supervisors respond with some public fretting, wring their hands and lament that they “have no choice.”

“Nobody likes taxes,” they insist – and then they vote to raise them anyway.

So my recently retired supervisor, who during his first campaign promised he would not vote to raise taxes, quickly changed his mind, admitted his “mistake,” and voted for every tax hike for the next 12 years.

In brief, the tax roadmap goes like this: the “professional staff” tells the supervisors how much money they “need,” and the supervisors send the bill to the taxpayers. And the bill goes up every time.

This charade need not continue, however. Informed by the Founders’ wisdom, and inspired by the findings of Public Choice theory, the supervisors could indeed follow through on their stated desire not to raise taxes. They simply need to turn the process right side up.

Instead of being guided by the bureaucracy, the supervisors should be guided by the taxpayers. Instead of telling the taxpayers how much more they need, the supervisors need to tell the bureaucracy, “This is how much we’ve got. Live with it.”

Of course, most of our supervisors are part time, and virtually volunteers. To succeed in properly fulfilling their elected role, they might have to spend more time, dig more deeply, and more carefully identify budget priorities and limits. Hard work.

Moreover, they have to revise their view of funding.

Our supervisors often speak of “free federal money” that pays for roads or bridges or Superfund site cleanups. Unfortunately, they have come to treat taxpayer revenues in the same way. Of course, “free” federal money just comes from other taxpayers from Maine to California – and you can bet that their counties are using “free” federal tax revenues from us Virginians for their own favorite projects just like we’re using theirs.

This unfortunate view, often called “tax and spend,” tempts local government employees as much as it has thoroughly infected their federal counterparts. To avoid being infected themselves, our elected officials must acknowledge that government employees are a faction – that in fact, government employee unions, including those working in education, are the most powerful, and the most liberal, pro-tax-and-spend factions in the country.

Memo to supervisors: Taxpayer money is not free. You work for us. You do not work for your staff – they work for you. They will always “need” to grow. They will always “need” a raise. It’s the nature of the beast.

If you treat the bureaucracy like any other faction, you will not have to raise taxes. Before long, you’ll be passing tax cuts. You won’t have to wring your hands – you’ll be smiling, and so will we.

Christopher Manion resides in Warren County.