When Thomas J. McCloskey gets angry about taxes these days, he doesn't write his congressman - he aims his protests at the State Capitol in Trenton.
Although McCloskey is concerned about rising federal taxes as well, it's the mounting state and local tax burden that stirs him most. "The tax situation here," he complains," is getting out of hand."
Indeed, for the past several years, the 50-year-old father of five has been conducting what amounts to a one-man campaign to hold down state and local taxes. McCloskey letters to the editor regularly appear in the West Essex Tribune here. He's become a fixture at school board meetings. And last year, he traveled to Trenton twice to demonstrate against the new state income tax.
McCloskey isn't the only one to notice the sharp increase in state and local tax loads in recent years. Figures compiled by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., an investment firm, show the growth of state and local tax receipts has far out-stripped the expansion of federal revenues over the past few decades - with tax obligations of individual taxpayers soaring proportionally.
While federal government tax receipts have remained relatively constant over the years at about 23 per cent of the national income, revenues of state and local governments have mushroomed from 8 per cent of national income in 1950 to a whopping 14.9 per cent in 1973 - making them the major force now behind the burgeoning American tax load.
According to a study by the Tax Foundation, Inc., the average American paid $731 in state and local taxes in the fiscal year that ended in June 1976 - a rise of $441 or 25 times the tab a decade ago. Says Joseph A. Pechman, the Brookings Institution's leading tax expert. "The state-local segment of the national revenue system is its most dynamic element."
Indeed, except for some of the big northern industrial states, revenue gains have been so large recently that state and local coffers in many areas are brimming over. While the states were in shaky financial shape during the 1974-76 recession, most now have recovered and are running Sizeable surpluses. Some even are using their money to retire old debts.
In McCloskey own case, the figures are convincing enough. Only 10 years ago, the bespectacled graying civil engineer and his family were paying a bare $850 a year in state and local taxes - a tax load he considered substantial, but was willing to go along with. Property taxes ran $685 (including municipal, county and school taxes), sales taxes $150 or so and auto registration $15.
Last tax year, however, the McCloskeys paid an estimated $2,680 in state and local taxes - more than three times the total they were assessed in 1966. Property taxes ran $1,800, sales taxes $250, and the motor vehicle registration fee had doubled to $30 (for a lightweight car). Finally, New Jersey imposed a new statewide income tax - costing McCloskey another $600.
To add to the injury, neither McCloskey nor other Northern New Jersey voters who chatted about their tax burdens this past week can see much around to justify the increase.
"I realize inflation is causing some of it," McCloskey says, "but it can't account for everytthing. To me, it's just an expansion of government. I don't feel I'm getting extra services."
William M. Barr, a retired school administrator in neigboring Milburn, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a few miles from McCloskey, agrees.
"It's not the money that disturbs me," Barr told a visitor recently, "but the way my tax money is being used. You have to ask yourself, 'What are my taxes buying?' As far as I can see, it's a rip-off."
To be sure the trend toward higher taxes isn't exactly a new one. According to figures published by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, state and local tax receipts have been rising as a per cent of national income since the early 1950s. At that time, the culprit was the need for a major expansion in education for the new crop of war babies.
But what really revved up state and local fiscal motors was the injection of massive new federal aid in the late 1960s - fueling demands for a wide range of new series, from welfare payments and highway building to Medical and recreational facilities. Although Washington paid much of the tab, states still had to "match" federal funds to get grants - and that took more cash.
The result was a spate of tax-raising by state and local governments, designed to bring in new receipts and shift the burden of taxpayers from the more regressive property tax - which hits harder on the poor - to other forms of revenue raisers, from broad-based income and sales taxes to increase in license fees and rates.
Over the past 16 years, state government alone have racked up almost 650 revenue raising steps, including 41 separate actions imposing new kinds of taxes and 586 legislative actions that have increased rates on existing taxes. New Jersey has the second-highest number of tax actions under its belt - 26 through 1977. The District of Columbia is highest, with 24.)
For obvious political reasons, these increases have been confined for the most part to so-called nuisance and "sin" taxes - excise taxes on liquor, beer, cigarettes (and in some cases) gambling.
Sidney Glaser, Nwew Jersey's tax director, concedes his state "ran through the whole chain of beads" on minor taxes before finally venturing on an income tax in 1976.
But many states have enacted broad-based taxes as well. Since 1961, 10 states have adopted full-ledged income taxes, and another 10 have imposed statewide sales taxes for the first time. As a result, 41 states now have broad-based income taxes and 45 sales taxes or consumption taxes of some sort. And many local governments have begun imposing income or sales taxes.
The surge of state and local tax receipts in recent years has stemmed from somewhat different sources. With so much of the take now pegged to income and sales taxes, inflation has been a major factor in bloating revenues - both by spurring prices on which sales taxes are levied and by pushing income-taxpayers into a higher brackets. The spurt has been especially evident since 1973.
Another, in 1970s, has been the ups and downs of the economy. The rise in state and local tax revenues slowed visibly during the 1974-75 recession, and fiscal experts believe much of the resurgence in 1976 reflected the bounce-back of the economy.
And some of the mineral-rich states in the South and far West have profited from the sharp run-up in oil and gas prices, which has increased the royalties they receive from major energy companies. California and Texas, for example, both are enjoying substantial budget surpluses - thanks in part to extra payments on their mineral deposits.
The state and local fiscal picture is mixed now. In the big Northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions, many jurisdictions still are in trouble, largely because of their huge (and expensive-to-care-for) urban populations. Tax experts say most probably could make it without massive new tax hikes - if they can "resist" demands from their central cities. Others are in better shape.
Still recent developments have provided some hopes for a modest slowdown in the tax-hike trend - at least in the short-run. For one thing, partly because of fears over the New York City crisis, states and localities have cut back on spending. After a peak in 1975, their outlays (of monies not from federal sources) actually have declined as a percentage of gross national product.
At the same time, state and lcoal tax receipts have continued to rise as a proportion of GNP - providing many states with surpluses. Until recently, most states have used the windfall to rebuild their budgets. But John Shanon, ACIR's assistant director, believe 1978 will see a spate of new initiatives to trim state and local tax burdens - particularly property taxes.
Indeed, Maryland already appears headed for just such a reversal. Acting Gov. Blair. Lee III last weel proposed an income-tax cut that would affect nearly every Maryland family. Many observers are convinced the legislature will move to trim back property taxes as well. Shannon predicts other states will follow the lead.
But Brookings' Pechman cautions that any real relief may temporary at best. While the austerity trend may produce some restraint in the next few years, he says, the states ultimately will run down their surpluses and have to seek new revenues again. Within a few years, he says, tax growth "will return to its long-term trend."
Meanwhile, McCloskey, for one isn't giving up hope. When he first started protesting against higher spending and taxes, he says, mulling through a scrapbook of tax records and clippings, there often were "clashes" with state and local officials. "Now," McCloskey muses, "there's not as much animosity," and they're beginning to understand.