September 23 - 30, 1998

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The Body Politic


Wow! A Rebate!
To ingratiate;
Will oft pass out,
A tax rebate

Like you, we just got our rebate check. There were two ways you could tell what it was even before opening the envelope. One was the black box, with "Rebate 98" written in white. The other was Nancy Wyman's name printed above "Office of the State Comptroller." It's not usually there.

Inside, Wyman struck again. Her name was the first thing on the letterhead to which the check was attached. The rebate was surely a politi-cal bonanza for her. She could never have afforded to pay for that kind of exposure. Now maybe she should follow the governor's lead and run a couple state-paid ads with her picture, reminding us to cash our checks.

Farther down on the letter were the names and signatures of the six House and Senate leaders. Somehow they kept the governor's name off the mailing altogether. But that's OK. He'd already taken his credit.

Still, not everyone who paid taxes got a rebate. Only those who were prosperous enough to have paid both income and property taxes were eligible. If you paid your property tax through your rent, or were too poor to pay income tax, you got zilch. Your contribution to the state budget through the sales tax didn't count. Neither did your Lotto tickets. Even though the sales tax supplies nearly as much of our state revenue as does the income tax, only income tax payers were deemed worthy of a rebate.

They were so deemed, of course, because they vote. Income and property tax payers wisely vote much more regularly than do those who merely pay the sales tax. That's called democracy.

That democracy was thwarted a few years ago when Lowell Weicker blessedly muscled through the income tax. Now Nutmeggers are taxed more or less fairly to keep our state running, and our budget has had a surplus ever since. This is the same tax which John Rowland has vowed to repeal. Not that he'd really like to do it. It's just that saying it wins votes.

But while the state tax system has improved a lot, our local tax system remains the pits. That's why Barbara Kennelly just came out with a tepid proposal to lower property taxes by 10 percent. The state would make up the difference to the towns. That part is good, because it means more public services would be paid for by the income tax, which is fair, and fewer by the property tax, which isn't.

The rest of her plan, unfortunately, is bad, because it treats Greenwich and New Haven just the same. By now, anyone who troubles to read this column knows that that isn't fair. But maybe her polling showed that's all she can get away with in an election campaign.

It would be nice, though, for a moment, to occasionally set politics aside. Forget the dumb rebate. Forget the dumb campaign. Look, instead, at Vermont. Somehow that government hypnotized its voters and passed a statewide property tax. Their Greenwiches and New Havens now all pay taxes at the very same rate. Proceeds are distributed per capita. Now THAT'S reform. It would revolutionize Connecticut.

Or take Michigan. The state has taken over nearly the whole cost of local schools. That would revolutionize Connecticut too.

But Connecticut isn't into revolution, or even reform. We prefer rebates. Consequently our central cities, and especially their schools, continue to molder. Our politics seem incapable of shaking that tradition. Maybe a court will have to do it for us, or a return of Lowell Weicker.

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