Alaska editorial: State head tax would be unfair

Posted: Thursday, April 08, 2004

This editorial appeared in the March 29 Anchorage Daily News:

It's no surprise that House Finance Committee approval of a $100 head tax on workers Thursday was transparently reluctant. The idea is patently unfair - and onerous for those who can least afford the burden.

Let's start, however, with the upside: Asking for something from everyone is an important principle. Everyone who enjoys the privileges of life in Alaska - including the opportunity to work - should accept the responsibilities of citizenship. We all get the benefits; we all share the burdens. That equation is the bedrock of American democracy.

This $100 head tax is also being called an education tax - partly to hearken to a simple tax Alaska old-timers will recall, a $10 schools tax. Until oil money flushed it away with the state income tax, the schools tax came off the top of a worker's first paycheck. Part of the appeal was that Alaska schools got a piece of every worker's first check whether they lived in the state or not. People paid a little to the community for the chance to enjoy its benefits. It was part of the price of admission, the dues you paid for belonging. It bit a little, especially if you occupied the low end of the wage scale, but everybody paid it, and without much complaint.

Still, the burden of a head tax at any level is inherently unfair. At $100, it bites a minimum-wage worker hard but barely brushes a well-paid professional. It can mean food or medicine to one worker - or barely a bar tab to another. To take the same number of dollars from a single parent or kid saving for college as from a skills-in-demand technician or corporate attorney is both impractical and immoral - impractical because people at the economic margins might be pushed over the edge into more expensive problems, immoral because it inflicts real pain on one and not the other.

At a nominal level, a head tax might be justified on grounds of inclusiveness. But at any level that counts - either in the revenues it collects for the state or the burden it puts on citizens - it's deeply unfair.

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