Retire Hank Waters: the fairgrounds tax editorial

Hank Waters, an elderly scion of the family owning the Columbia, Missouri Daily Tribune, is solely responsible for its editorials. Thursday’s editorial was Fairground Tax: the nature of the opposition.

The title suggests that Mr. Waters will discuss the arguments behind the opposition to the tax and give reasons why he supports it. We expected a balanced, fair treatment of the arguments pro and con. We did not get it. Most of the reasons behind the opposition are ignored and, when brought forward, misstated. His support of the tax often boils down to assertions empty of substantiation. The straw-man opposition is painted as stupid, short-sighted, and acting against its own wishes and interests. This reminds us of the book, What’s the matter with Kansas?, which with typical liberal condescension details how stupid Kansans are to vote Republican against their obvious self interest. Mr. Waters gets so many things wrong that we cannot resist the temptation to respond point by point. But before we get into the sins of commission, we want to highlight those of omission. There are many serious and disturbing issues surrounding this poorly drafted proposal no serious commentator can legitimately ignore. By doing so Mr. Waters’s editorials betray an arrogant disrespect for his audience. He has far too long been a member of the good-ole-boys clique that believes it alone has the right to run local government.

If Mr. Waters refuses to retire, he should at least bring in editorials from guest editors.

Background. At the end of the 1990s the Boone County Fairgrounds, held in private hands, was going under. The Boone County government under suspicious circumstances unwisely decided to purchase it. Many of us opposed the purchase of a failing private entity, in large measure because we expected government ownership to do worse. The losses mounted, as predicted, and now there is a ballot proposal to increase the county-wide sales tax to support continued operation. Please see here, here, and here for more detail.

The opposition as we understand it. The fairgrounds with big infrastructure problems is a permanent money-loser. Stubborn refusal to abandon a mistake is bad practice; increasing taxes to continue it is even worse. We hear an imaginary subtext in what the proponents are saying: we screwed up once, but we promise not to do it again. Astonishingly, the county seems to have only vague plans, nothing credible that could lead a sounder financial footing or prevent our being asked again and again for more tax money. It’s just a naked “Trust us.” The fairgrounds owns much land not used for recreational purposes; this land should have been sold before any tax increase was even considered. The city of Columbia and many other public officials are not on board with this tax increase. The Boone County Parks Commission pointedly refused to endorse the tax, which ostensibly is for parks, but is in fact a disguised bailout of the fairgrounds. The city of Columbia fears that passage of the countywide tax might jeopardize passage of its own passel of new taxes. The county rushed its plans for new taxes in order to get to the polls before the city, explaining the county’s hasty, poorly thought out, and dishonestly marketed proposal. This is a perfect example of government working to serve its own ends, the public interest be damned.

Our view can be expressed simply. The city and county are manipulating the public in pushing for new taxes. There is more than enough tax revenue for the basic services government is to provide, but it is easier for government to ask for new money than to restrain mission creep and run government services well. The fairgrounds is a proven money-loser. It should be sold. We doubt the new owner will refuse to rent out the facility to the current users. We support user fees over general taxes. Every new tax increase proposal should be voted down overwhelmingly until we have more responsive government. We would like to see proposals to reduce taxes.. Every politician and manager associated with the current status quo should be turned out of office. It used to be thought that 8% – the rate in New York City at the time – was about the highest a sales tax could or should go. We are now looking at 10% or more. Government does not care about the damage to economic growth, to families, particularly poor ones, caused by high levels of taxation.

Now to the point-by-point:

Waters: the opposition centers on the bailout and on increasing already too high taxation. He adds that this opposition says nothing “about the core issue of how to develop and maintain the fairground, which everyone seems to support.” To whom has he been talking? Not everyone supports county ownership of the fairgrounds. The core issue for the opposition is whether to continue throwing money down a black hole.

Waters: rather than mismanaging, the county failed to manage. This is a distinction without a difference. This is like arguments for socialism claiming that real socialism has never been attempted, the failures are just from imperfect attempts at socialism. Waters advocates doubling down on failure. Our sources suggest that management of the facility has been good, despite the impossible situation.

Waters: the “basic fact” is this: “The operation must have some sort of dedicated public funding…” This of course explains the opposition. Waters does not seem to grasp that there is an alternative to government-owned white elephants.

Waters: One of the county commissioners “says discussion with the city is underway. Her energy is another reason to approve the tax.” Would it not be prudent to wait until the city is on board with the new tax? Is it not laughable to say that someone’s energy is a good reason for a new tax? Would Mr. Waters change his mind if an opponent had even higher energy?

Waters: “Those who say local sales taxes are getting too high are not making a primary case against the fairground tax…” Well, is Mr. Waters saying they are making a secondary case…or no case at all? Or does he mean that one may not be opposed to tax increases generally (our view)? Sales taxes are not getting too high; they ARE too high.

Waters: “Critics also say they support the fairground and its continued operation.” Really now. It would be more accurate to say that critics would support the continued operation of the fairgrounds if – counterfactually and per impossibile – it were economically feasible without taxpayer subsidy and produced a profit.

Waters: “…for an extra 25 cents on a $200 purchase of nonexempt goods, the cost is minimal.” Critics would say that one can be bled to death from a thousand paper cuts. But even a minimal – subjective term – cost is too much for a bad idea.

Waters: the fairgrounds is a ‘project’ for which “public spending is vital and needed revenue must be provided.” Vital? Like police and fire protection, a sound water supply, decent roads? Vital? When both city and county do not have enough police and correction officers?    Troglo




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