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A Taxing Dilemma

Posted by on June 25, 2009

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

Caitlin Hartsell’s recent blog entry discusses another recent news piece, this one in the Springfield News-Leader, about that lawyer who is suing small Missouri towns that he holds to be charging illegally high sales taxes. I already talked about this in terms of theory, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to discuss the issue a bit more practically.

Here’s what I think should happen:

Officials in the towns that are charging these contested additional sales taxes believe they are in the right, because they received a letter from the Missouri Department of Revenue telling them what they could charge. The law, in my thoroughly layman interpretation, is ambiguous. It would be wonderful if we had an unambiguous state law that would prevent the present conflict between small towns’ desire to tax sales above 1.5 percent and the threat of expensive judgments/settlements.

In the absence of that, I question whether sales tax rates above 1.5% is actually needed in these towns. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they want tax revenues in order to provide needed services to their communities. Perhaps a better solution would be to reduce the number of taxing districts, so that the benefits of economies of scale can be realized. This possibility, which is one of the insightful prescriptions of David Stokes’ recent policy study of government in Missouri, could work as an alternative to higher sales tax rates.

At present, I am of two minds about the lawsuits. On one hand, lowering sales tax rates benefits consumers immensely. On the other, I worry about which avenues for funding these towns might undertake if the sales tax rug were suddenly pulled out from under them. I am not optimistic that cutting spending will be considered as an option.

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