Annual process lacks honesty and transparency

October 7, 2010 8:09AM

Tennessee Center for Policy Research president Justin Owen takes elected officials to task over their abuse of the “technical corrections” process that serves as a vehicle for massive tax increases. This article originally appeared in Thursday’s Tennessean. by Justin Owen Thomas Paine once said, “What at first was plunder assumed the softer name of revenue.” Many elected officials here in Tennessee have put this saying to good use. For the past several years, state lawmakers have passed hidden tax increases under the guise of technical corrections bills. Originally meant to do what its name suggests—clarify and make minor corrections to the complex state tax code—this annual piece of legislation has become every tax-loving politicians favorite vehicle to take your money. This past year, Gov. Phil Bredesen’s technical corrections proposal contained more than $130 million in tax hikes. And just as Thomas Paine had observed, Bredesen, his administration officials, and numerous legislative leaders began referring to these tax increases as mere “revenue enhancements.” While this legislation didn’t fare as well this past session, it has raked in an average of $115 million annually in past years. These elected officials can now tell their constituents, “We didn’t raise your taxes. We merely made a few technical corrections to the tax code that resulted in enhanced revenue.” Before you can even blink, their hands are out of your pocket and their pet projects are funded. It’s time for politicians to start shooting straight with Tennesseans. If they propose to increase the amount they take from citizens, then call it what it is: a tax increase, not a “technical correction” or a “revenue enhancement.” Not only should taxpayers expect honesty from their elected officials, they should demand transparency as well. If lawmakers want to raise taxes, they should file each proposed tax increase as a separate bill and move it through the legislative process, giving citizens an opportunity to educate themselves on the bill and their representatives a chance to vote it up or down. Rolling numerous tax increases into a bill that contains dozens of pages of legal jargon is purely unacceptable. According to the Tennessean’s own research, 150 different tax hikes have been proposed through this bill since 2007 alone. This year’s technical corrections bill initially sought to raise taxes on a smorgasbord of items, including cable, real estate, food that hotels provide free-of-charge, drivers’ licenses, business telecommunications, and large items such as furniture and equipment. In yet another attempt at lingual acrobatics, Gov. Bredesen’s then-chief taxman cunningly referred to the latter as a tax on “luxury items.” In reality, the tax would have applied to purchases that average Tennesseans make several times a year and that small business make on a routine basis to keep their doors open. Consider the local restaurant owner who purchases a commercial grade refrigerator, the doctor’s office that adds a new MRI machine, the small web designer that upgrades her server, or the middle-class family that gets its first new set of bedroom furniture in a decade. All would have been hit with a new tax on these “luxury items.” Lawmakers need to end the abuse of this process once and for all. The technical corrections bill should be limited to its original intent, and every proposed tax increase should be filed, debated, and voted on individually, not shoved through legislative committees all at once. Is it too much to ask as taxpayers for a little honesty and transparency from their elected officials? Justin Owen is the president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, the state’s free market think tank.