This article from Missoula, Montana’s newspaper (aptly named The Missoulian) highlights a new poll showing that even residents of that traditionally conservative state are increasingly willing to use taxes as a tool of social policy, to reduce the things they want less of.  To wit:

By an 84 to 13 percent margin, Montanans favor raising taxes on electronic gambling machines, with 3 percent undecided.

Similarly, a plurality of poll respondents supported a tax on big box stores (49 percent in favor, vs. 44 percent opposed).  But they aren’t blanket tax raisers, with a plurality opposing a 5-cent tax on soda pop. (Apparently Montanans prefer Coke to Wal-Mart.)

On the down side, the majority of poll respondents would accept a sales tax (Montana currently has none) in exchange for lower property taxes. Sales taxes fall particularly hard on the poor, who spend a larger share of their income on things that would be taxed.  Typically, sales taxes exclude the sorts of things that rich people buy more of, like houses, private education, and better medical care.  (A high sales tax, but no income tax, makes Washington State’s tax system the most regressive in the nation, while Montana’s tax system is among the gentlest on the poor.)

Property taxes are generally progressive, since the wealthy tend to own the most land and the priciest buildings.  In general, taxes on buildings tend to be harmful to the economy, but taxes on land values may actually be a boon by reducing land speculation and encouraging development in downtown areas, among other effects.  (More on all of this in our book Tax Shift.)

Every tax system affects people’s behavior, encouraging certain kinds of activities and discouraging others.  That’s what taxing is all about.  So it’s heartening to see the dawning recognition among Montanans that they can use the tax system to get something that they actually want.  But at the same time, it’s disheartening that so many people seem perfectly happy to shift taxes onto the people who can least afford to bear their burdens.

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