Reframing Budgets and Taxes

Greetings Framers!

Two weeks ago, voters in 40 states were asked to respond to a series of ballot measures on hot topic issues, such as health care, sales tax, and education.  With a stagnant national economy, the issue of budgets and taxes remained close to the heart and minds of the public. People are concerned about budgets and taxes: (1) how raising or cutting taxes will impact their lives and pocketbooks, and (2) how legislative measures intended to shrink both state and local government’s size and costs will impact needed social and human service programming.

As part of the post-election fallout, it is clear that American policymakers will be tasked with having difficult conversations with the public about budget and taxes.  While these conversations may not be easy, they provide the opportunity to reframe this conversation in a way that engages the public about the important role budgets and taxes play in shaping communities.

At FrameWorks, we take a long-term view toward reframing the public conversation on issues like budgets and taxes.  We always caution the nonprofits that we work with against being drawn in solely by the short-term impact of legislative proposals that seek to address or remediate social issues.  Instead, we think that the nonprofit community will reap much greater benefits out of a long-term strategy that shifts the public conversation and engages the public around the issues that they care about.  That is, we argue that nonprofits need to be more attentive to the way public problems are presented for public debate and this is especially true in the current socio-political environment.

Given the shifting American political landscape, this is the perfect time to re-engage the public in a productive conversation about budget and taxes.  Our research suggests that when budgets and taxes are discussed in light of the country’s priorities and as part of a shared future, people are reminded of the collective products that taxes make possible. From this we understand that the public needs to be able to see the common goal to which budgets and taxes are the means.

FrameWorks’ offers an array of resources to support local efforts to shift this public conversation.  On our website we have a toolkit available on budgets and taxes, called Talking About Budgets and Taxes.

This toolkit includes:

· Message Memo that explains and interprets the findings of research on how to increase public support for policies; and,

· Several valuable framing tools to help advocates apply this research in their work.

o   Talking points for media interviews

o   A sample op-ed/Letter to the Editor article

o   A FAQ sheet on common questions about budgets and taxes

o   Key framing guides that illustrate how to structure productive conversations with the public that lead to support for reform.

Included in this post (below) is a CNN article by Tami Luhby, an exemplar of the types of conversations that are taking place in the public domain. Read the following article and tell us if the content sounds familiar to you.  Is this the “state” of communications in your area about budgets and taxes?   How would you reframe this discussion?


Yndia Lorick-Wilmot, PhD

Senior Associate

“Voters to states: No new taxes”
By Tami Luhby, senior writer November 5, 2010

Thanks to voters, alcohol will no longer be taxed in Massachusetts. Candy won’t be subject to alevy in Washington anymore. And California drivers won’t have to pay a proposed $18 fee to fund state parks.  State residents aren’t feeling very generous these days, even though now is when government officials say they need the tax money the most.  While some of the most radical tax cutting efforts failed, plenty of smaller but still consequential ones garnered plenty of support at the polls on Tuesday. This will make it more challenging for state officials to close budget gaps, which total $140 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1.  “At a time when revenue is so scarce and depleted, it’s not going to be an easy path for legislators and governors,” said Sujit CanagaRetna, senior fiscal analyst at the Council of State Governments.

The results at the ballot box show that residents feel states can make further cuts to spending before they turn to raising taxes, said Joseph Henchman, director of state projects at The Tax Foundation.  “They don’t seem to think that spending has been cut to the bone,” he said.  Voters unraveled state officials’ attempts to  raise revenues through taxes and fees. Here  are the effects in three of the most-impacted  states.

California: Lawmakers wanted to add an $18  surcharge on car registrations to fund state  parks and wildlife programs.  The measure would have raised $500 million  for the severely cash-strapped state coffers  and would have allowed California to spend an additional $250 million on its extensive parks system. And it would have freed up  $200 million that lawmakers could have directed elsewhere.  More than 58% of Californians who went to the polls opposed the proposal.  In addition, residents made it harder to enact certain fees, requiring two-thirds of lawmakers support an increase, rather than just a simple majority. Nearly 53% of voters approved this proposition.  Incoming Governor Jerry Brown got the message loud and clear.  “If an $18 measure to benefit state parks was  defeated that resoundingly, then the people of California are not in the mood to reach deeper into their wallets,” said Sterling Clifford, Brown’s campaign press secretary.  But, Clifford said, this mean there will have to be further belt-tightening.

Massachusetts: Voters repealed a 6.25% tax on alcohol that was put in place in 2009.  Advocates for the repeal said it hurt small businesses that sell wine, beer and liquor and wasn’t fair because the state already imposes an excise tax on alcohol.  About 52% of voters supported the measure, which was heavily supported by the liquor industry.  The tax, which Gov. Deval Patrick estimated in his fiscal 2011 budget would generate$100 million, was being put toward addiction control services, smoking cessation and prevention program, child nutrition initiatives and other health efforts.

Washington: Voters made it clear they don’t want to pay sales tax on candy. The initiative,which passed with a 62.4% vote, also ends a temporary sales tax on some bottled water and a temporary excise taxes on carbonated beverages. It also reduces tax rates for certain food processors.  The taxes, which became effective June 1, will expire on Dec. 2. State lawmakers will now have to find a way to replace the $352 million these levies would have raised over five years.  Meanwhile, local officials will lose $83 million in taxes.  The state is facing a $520 million budget gap for the current fiscal year and will have to deal with a whopping a $4.5 billion shortfall for its next spending plan, which starts July 1.  “The additional cuts we will have to make due to this loss of revenue will have significant  consequences,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire.


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