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Editorial: Taxes and state priorities

Hundreds of Vermonters from across the state have apparently deluged state senators with the message not to tax their TV, apparently because they think their television service is an essential item and they couldn’t possibly afford any increase in rates.
Hundreds more have argued against extending the sales tax to soda, candy and bottled water, and major lobbying groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing the initiative.
Opponents of both of taxes have lost touch with what “essential” needs are and what are, or should be, “state priorities.”
Take the proposed 5 percent excise tax on satellite television companies, such as Dish Network and DirecTV. The tax would raise about $5 million annually and would affect more than 100,000 Vermonters.
One might argue that have some access to television is essential, if you can’t read and aren’t connected to the Internet. Short of that, however, most of the time spent in the front of the TV (with the exception of a few news programs and educational programs) is anything but essential. It’s entertainment that usually does not lead to more productive lives.
State senators should counter with a campaign in which they champion the tax, along with the motto: Turn it off, read more, play more, be happier. Besides, it’s also equitable: while the state already places the 6 percent sales tax on satellite and cable television, the state also places an infrastructure state on cable television. The excise tax on satellite service would be on the company, not on the consumer, and puts the tax burden of satellite service closer to a par with cable. Satellite companies have been rallying customers to oppose the tax out of the fear of consequent rate increases, but competition among providers will likely keep cost increases in check.
As for extending the sales tax to soda, candy and bottled water — a measure that would raise about $11 million, $7.2 million for the general fund and $3.3 million for the education fund — this, too, makes common sense, at least for soda and candy. The idea is to discourage the consumption of products that cause one of the state’s and nation’s most serious health crises: obesity. Like taxing tobacco, this is good public policy.
That it may drive a few dollars across the border into New Hampshire is a concern, but that’s a short-lived phenomenon that won’t dictate consumer habits for long. Driving 30 more miles round-trip to cross the border and back to save a few dollars may sound like a compelling idea for a few weeks, but after a few trips the extra time spent, added gas and minimal savings just won’t be a compelling reason to avoid a few dollars in taxes.
In short, the public policy goal is more important than the few dollars that are apt to be lost — and our bet is even that would be temporary.
As the Legislature makes last-minute adjustments to the budget and nears adjournment, legislators and the governor must hone in on just what is essential to Vermonters’ lives and what are the most pressing state priorities. If job growth is a state priority, then increasing taxes on wages or health care programs works counter to that goal (such as the tiered employer assessment provision under H.489.) If the consumption of sugary drinks and candy, and a slight tax on satellite TV, can provide revenue that helps the state afford programs that are more beneficial than these taxes are detrimental, then it’s fairly easy to determine which is the greater priority and what is essential and what isn’t.
What legislators and the governor can’t do is be swayed by lobbyists and niche groups who are protecting their turf. Everything is “essential” to someone. It’s the legislators’ and the governor’s job to determine what’s in the best interest of the collective whole, and not heel to the hue and cry of special interests.
Angelo S. Lynn

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