Keeping taxes ‘painless’ is always part of the strategy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 4, 2009

New years should start on cheery notes.

Taxation, as a rule, is not a cheery topic.

But it’s something we think about each January, so let’s do an overview.

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There are lots of notorious tax grumblers. To hear them talk, roads and bridges, parks, police and fire departments, schools, courts, jails, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines — and every other government operation — should get magic money of some sort. The  grumblers resent every penny taken out of the private economy.

Specific to federal income taxes paid by wage-earners, an argument the grumblers have put forth for decades is to do away with payroll deduction. The grumblers want people to sit down, write a check and mail it to their congressman — for forwarding to the Internal Revenue Service — every week or two. The belief is that people would start paying more attention. And no doubt all of us would.

But while that’s all well and good, the chunk sliced off paychecks for personal income tax purposes these days is, for vast numbers of working people, sort of a government-enforced savings plan. The latest figures show 40 percent of all working people do not make enough or have sufficient deductions to avoid any federal tax on their pay. The money is taken out, but workers get it back — and often far more than was withheld.

An entire industry has grown up around this situation. So many people will get complete refunds — and millions will also receive Earned Income Credit cash in addition to amounts withheld — that most Mississippi towns now have as many tax preparation franchises as they had video rental stores a few years back. Some of the operations are nigh-unto-criminal. They cater to folks who don’t have much money anyway and dangle “refund anticipation loans” in front of them.

Customers are enticed to sign over to the tax preparer their full refunds — which they could get in a matter of days anyway — for a few hundred dollars less than the full amount. It’s a major ripoff of vulnerable people, but don’t expect the Legislature or Congress to intercede. They avoid calling attention to anything having to do with taxes whenever possible.

And that leads to this: Some think that to avoid income taxes is tantamount to avoiding all taxes.

No, no, no.

Taxes are, quite literally, everywhere.

Buy a car and Mississippi imposes a 5 percent sales tax on the purchase price plus annual taxes and fees for tags. Lease a car and sales tax is added to every payment.

Buy tires for the car or a battery and there are extra taxes and fees.

Put fuel in the tank and there are federal and state taxes. A Mississippian driving a 20 mile-per-gallon gasoline-powered car 200 miles per week in 2008 paid $200 in fuel taxes, probably without even knowing it. Diesel taxes are higher and, of course, there are those saying now is the time to increase fuel taxes.

At least 12 cents of every dollar a customer leaves at any state-licensed casino goes into state or local treasuries.

People who live in apartments or other rental units may think they avoid property taxes, but that’s not true. Landlords pay them and pass them through in rents.

Residential utility bills are exempt from Mississippi’s general sales tax but spend any amount of time looking at a cable or satellite TV bill, wired or cell phone bill or any other services and it’s amazing how many taxes and fees are tacked on.

The most unseen of unseen taxes are those well “upstream” of end purchasers. Think about a simple loaf of bread. In Mississippi, a 7 percent sales tax is added to the retail price — but ponder what goes into the retail price. Portions would be for taxes on the farmer’s land, fuel used by the trucking company, payroll levies on every worker in the growing, shipping, baking, wrapping, delivery and sales processes. And for imported products there’s the matter of import and export duties and fees.

See? Taxation really isn’t a cheery topic.

Beware of those who stump and fuss about the federal income tax as if that levy is the only or even the largest tax most people pay.

It’s not even close. There are dozens and dozens of methods through which our state and federal governments nibble away portions of the private economy to pay for public services. And it’s a fair prediction for 2009 that creative minds in Jackson and Washington, D.C., will find even more.


Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail