WHAT OTHERS SAY: Lawmakers finally back a tax hike, but it's the wrong one

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:39 a.m. CST, Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The most misguided policy stance tying Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, with the Republicans who run the Missouri Legislature is the insistence that they will balance the state budget without a tax increase.

They can do this, of course, if they don't mind racing to the bottom. And they've shown that they don't.

But lawmakers actually may raise one tax. They just don't want to admit it.

Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, has filed a bill that would raise the admissions fee to Missouri casinos by $1 and dedicate the proceeds to shoring up the budget of state veterans homes. The bill is supported by Republicans and Democrats, and mirrors a proposal in Mr. Nixon's budget.

The elected officials behind the proposal are quick to call the new revenue a "user fee" to differentiate it from a tax.

It's a distinction without a difference. Most user fees are generated to help pay for the very programs the fees support. For instance, fishing license fees support fish and wildlife programs. Park fees support parks. Sewer fees support clean water regulation.

Casino admissions fees don't support casinos. And the users don't actually pay them.

In Missouri, and some other states, the fees are one way governments extract money from casinos. The existing $2 admissions fee for Missouri casinos is paid as a tax by the casinos to state and local governments. The tax supports traditional government services: roads, schools and, yes, veterans homes.

It walks like a tax. It talks like a tax. It's a tax.

In fact, that's precisely what the Missouri Gaming Commission calls it. In its annual report outlining the tax rates paid by the state's casinos, the commission refers to the admissions fees as "tax collections." When the gambling industry figures its effective tax rates for comparing its business models state to state, it includes the admissions fees.

Why does this matter?

Because it speaks to the hypocrisy of the "no new taxes" pledges. Proposing an increase in gambling taxes to help veterans isn't necessarily a bad idea. In fact, we're all for it.

However, in considering the state's priorities, finding new revenue for veterans homes while cutting higher education and social welfare programs, and barely staying afloat in K-12 education, makes no sense. What makes one need a greater priority than others?

As 'sin taxes" go, Missouri's gambling tax rates are in line with those in surrounding states, higher than those in Kansas and Iowa but lower than those in Illinois.

But Missouri has the lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax, which also can be seen as a user fee. In the case of tobacco, the tax actually gets paid by users.

Lawmakers, though — or at least the ones who matter — won't touch the tobacco tax because they can't figure out the linguistic gymnastics that would allow them to say with a wink and a nod that raising it wouldn't be a tax hike.

Let's stop the charade. Missouri has serious revenue problems directly related to years of putting corporate entitlements ahead of children, seniors, veterans and disabled people. Missouri's tax burden is one of the lowest in the nation. Raising it just a little could do a lot of good.

Trying to balance Missouri's budget without a tax increase might make for good politics. But being phony about it? That's just sinful.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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