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The tax question

So Bill White gave a straightforward answer to a question about taxes, and everybody goes nuts. Well, Rick Perry and his minions went nuts, and everybody else followed.

The former Houston mayor, asked by the Tribune’s Evan Smith whether he would rule out tax increases in the face of looming budget shortfall, declined to do so. Perry pounced — attacking just like Hance and Richards and countless others before them. Perry himself wasn’t doing the talking, but his campaign had previously issued a demand for White’s income tax returns and added the charge that he had opened the door for higher taxes should he win in November.

This is as much about how the race for governor will be run as it is about taxes. Perry is relying on an established argument and traditional voter expectations. One ally, who worked on the Williams campaign 20 years ago, put it this way: “You have to do a few things when you run for office in Texas. You have to debate. You have to release your tax returns. And you have to say you won’t raise taxes.” White’s trying to change the way the argument goes.

“What I did when running for mayor of Houston is I never committed to whether I would raise or lower taxes,” he said in the TribLive interview. “I would say the same thing, that I’ve got to look under the hood and see how the economy is at the time, and make sure that we’re able, that the revenues equal the expenses, and that I would do everything possible in order to maintain fiscal discipline on the revenue side. Period. … I did not commit to do it because until you look under the hood and see what you can do and what the state of the economy is and what the tradeoff is, you shouldn’t be making that decision. That decision shouldn’t be made on the basis of a sound bite or a political ploy. It should be made on what you need in order to accomplish your goals.”

I admire White for not backing down, though I would have liked to have heard more about the state’s structural deficit and the need to deal with that. Sadly, the nature of our discourse is such that these things are considered taboo. Perhaps the best we can do is to get a thorough accounting of the tax breaks and other goodies that are currently on the books to see which of them might safely be eliminated. There’s a bipartisan push for that going on in Washington, and the subject has come up here as well. That won’t get a handle on the underlying problem, and the odds of any specific tax break actually getting eliminated are directly proportional to the amount of power the affected beneficiaries wield, but at least it’s something.

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