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Tax reform: Begin at the beginning

Mention taxes going up (or down) and folks are going to pay attention. Start a discussion on the principles of tax reform and you can watch the eyes glaze over. Yet the most reasonable way to accomplish the former is to begin with the latter.

The new 16-member legislative Joint Select Committee on Tax Reform got down to work in earnest during a wonkish day-long meeting Monday. You just knew when Marshall University economics professor emeritus Dr. Cal Kent lectured on economist Adam Smith’s seminal book Wealth of Nations that it was going to be that kind of a day.

However, when undertaking an enterprise as substantial as reforming the state’s tax code, it’s best to begin at the beginning. In doing so, the committee has already laid down an important marker; it has resisted the temptation to play Whack-a-Mole by targeting one tax or another to be changed and instead is focusing on basics.

The committee already has a base from which to begin its work; comprehensive tax studies during the administrations of Govs. Manchin and Underwood. They reached the same conclusions about the fundamentals of an effective tax system: Fairness, efficiency, simplicity, adequate revenue generation and competitiveness.

Co-chairman Mike Hall wanted to start there. “We collect billions of dollars of taxes from our citizens,” he told me on “Talkline” Tuesday. “We owe them the time and commitment to at least study that and where it’s going.”

One of the fundamental problems with the existing state tax code is that it has been subject to frequent incremental changes over time. Former Tax Commissioner Mike Caryl, who was one of the authors of Gov. Underwood’s 1999 report, told the committee the tax code has increased from 900 pages to 1,629 in the last 25 years.

“Simplicity is not something we can say we have achieved,” Caryl said.

The committee also learned the state budget includes $75 million in business tax credits, which are as ubiquitous as springtime dandelions. The problem is the state rarely reviews those credits to determine their effectiveness or even necessity.

That can probably be said for any number of the tax changes over the years. Perhaps they seemed like a good idea at the time (or there was enough political support for them), but collectively they can leave the tax laws confusing and counterproductive.

Implementing comprehensive tax reform will take a considerable amount of bi-partisan political will, but you can’t fix something if you don’t understand it. With that in mind the committee is off to a good start by trying to understand why things are the way they are.

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