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A COLUMN BY MICHAEL J. HICKS

Frustration of tax time lies more in value than in cost

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 8:38 am

With the passing of April 15 and the annual ritual of tax filings, news pages are filled with discussion about the size of federal, state and local tax burdens. This is ripe discussion at home as well. The Hicks household paid 16.3 percent of earnings in federal tax and 4.1 in state and local income tax. Of course, that doesn't count property and sales taxes or Social Security and Medicare taxes that comprise more than 10 percent of our income.

Altogether, nearly one of every three dollars my household earned was paid in taxes last year. Clearly I could keep more of my money if I had a better financial planner, but I am not sure that would make me better off. Like most citizens, I am not so simple that the price of government is all I care about. Value matters also, and as with any value determination, the price (or tax rate) is only half the story.

I reside in Yorktown, where in the last election a referendum merged our municipal and township government. Value-wise I am most pleased. My children attend three different schools in the Yorktown Community Schools system, which ranks in the top 10 in the state. Having shuffled my kids through some very good schools in Ohio and some inexcusably poor ones in West Virginia and Indiana, I am delighted at the Yorktown value. In truth we in the Hicks household would pay more to ensure continued quality in these schools.

My home is also in Delaware County, where continued fiscal mismanagement was a prime motivator of property tax reform. It is necessary to note that many municipalities in the county, including Muncie, are working hard to overcome this burden. Still, this week our treasurer was indicted for 46 felonies and one misdemeanor.

Beyond the pure entertainment value provided by our county government, the value proposition here is elusive. While I repeatedly make a passionate and informed argument for more fiscal autonomy for Indiana's local government, this is a hard argument to sustain in the wake of my county's fiscal follies.

At the state level I am fairly satisfied with the value proposition. States frequently have a very light role in the business of citizens, and Indiana is no exception.

It is my federal taxes that bother me most thanks to the troubled value proposition. Even while spending perhaps 30 percent more than tax revenues would allow, one has to look hard to see benefits. Part if that is natural, part is not.

It is naturally difficult to see the benefit of national defense or a court system. That is the nature of a public good. But I cannot see how the federal departments charged with education or energy do anything more than shuffle my money around. The same is largely true with agriculture, commerce and housing and urban development. Those total $1.22 trillion of dubious value, of which Indiana's share is bigger than our annual state budget. I am sure Yorktown's schools can spend it better.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.