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Mark Pocan's Smoke Screen

His pieties about protecting middle class families are a cover for hiking taxes on the poor

By Christian Schneider

On June 15, Mark Pocan was on a roll. He stood on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly delivering a sarcastic stem-winder, criticizing the new state budget so dramatically that it sounded as if he were auditioning for a community theater production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Pocan, who seems destined to inherit Tammy Baldwin’s safely Democratic congressional seat, ripped the Republican-authored budget for its use of fund raids, debt restructuring and fee increases (mostly UW tuition) to balance the budget.

Of course, this was pure calumny, as the last Democratic budget — authored with Pocan as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee — could be characterized only by those exact gimmicks.

Pocan thundered that the budget was an “attack on the middle-class families of Wisconsin.” In a particularly obnoxious critique of the GOP, Pocan said Gov. Scott Walker’s budget “increased property taxes” by $475 million. Of course the state doesn’t “increase” property taxes — it merely limits how much local governments can increase property taxes.

Apparently Pocan lost the memo that demonstrated that using those same numbers, the Pocan-authored budget of 2009 “raised” property taxes by $1.49 billion — more than three times Walker’s alleged increase.

Pocan finished with the most disingenuous talking point: Republicans were going after the middle class by scaling back the homestead and earned-income tax credits by $69.8 million. Surely, Democrats would never support taxes that harm the middle class!

In fact, Democrats prefer taxes that harm the poor.

Exactly 734 days earlier, Pocan stood on the Assembly floor arguing for a budget he authored that increased the cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack. This hike occurred directly on the heels of a $1 per pack tax increase that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law just two years earlier.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 54% of all cigarette smokers have incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Increasing taxes on cigarettes is a direct tax increase on people who can least afford it. And the increase isn’t insignificant.

State cigarette tax receipts jumped 54% the year after the $1 per-pack hike. In the three years since the Legislature began raising cigarette taxes, receipts have increased $762.9 million over the base of $296 million in 2007. If Wisconsin smokers follow national income patterns, that amounts to a $412 million tax increase on the state’s poorest people — the same people we pretend to help by pouring millions into social programs.

As a result of this massive tax increase on the poor, Wisconsin papered over its own fiscal mismanagement in the prior decade. Cigarette tax revenues now account for 5.3% of state general fund revenues, as opposed to only 2.35% three years ago. At $2.52 per pack, Wisconsin has the seventh-highest cigarette tax in the nation, behind only notorious spendthrifts like New York, New Jersey and Hawaii.

Democrats argued that higher cigarette taxes would dissuade people from smoking, leading to a healthier populace. Yet the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau estimates the number of smokers has dropped by only 3% per year since 2000.

In the meantime, one can walk into any gas station in Wisconsin and see a tattooed mother in her pajamas, holding a child in each arm, plunk down sixty bucks for a carton of heaters.

Sure, nobody puts a lighter to anyone’s head and forces them to buy cigarettes. But the numbers show that the new taxes aren’t really slowing many people down. And thanks to Democrats, being poor has gotten a lot more expensive.

Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, is paid in Camel Cash.

© 2015 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 633 W. Wisconsin Ave Suite 330, Milwaukee, WI 53203
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