Ky. Voices: Reform tax code without hurting poor, middle class

JoAnn R. Schwartz of Fort Thomas is active with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
JoAnn R. Schwartz of Fort Thomas is active with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

The Kentucky Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform will report its findings on Dec. 15.

The 23-member commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, held town meetings throughout the commonwealth to hear opinions of individuals, organizations and companies on making the tax code adequate, simpler, more elastic, competitive and fairer.

Quite a tall order.

It was this goal of tax justice for all Kentuckians that led me to track the course of the commission. I have followed its work closely, traveling to Frankfort on my days off to hear testimony, speaking at the town hall meeting at Northern Kentucky University in July, following articles in newspapers and at various websites.

I have been full of hope through this process. I read of one young mother from Bowling Green who declared her passion for education in the commonwealth, saying, "I don't want companies to want to hire my children because they're cheap, but because they're skilled, educated and creative."

At our local meeting at NKU, teachers and concerned citizens were adamant in their support for educational opportunities for all children, preschool through university, as well as well-stocked and well-staffed libraries.

Education and re-education were the keys to producing viable employment opportunities and thus, successful citizens and families.

Readers are aware of the dire fiscal situation of the state. Our elected leaders, instead of raising revenue, have cut the budgets for valuable programs, and we know that if revenue is not increased, deeper cuts will be made. Obviously changes to the tax system are necessary to provide more revenue to achieve our shared goals.

Some of their options are valuable. The earned income tax credit would help offset the costs of working for low-and moderate-income families. Raising revenue by taxing some services — why not tax landscaping services when we tax buying your own lawnmower? — will bring our tax code up to date.

Rolling back our too-generous tax cuts for pension and retirement income and eliminating outdated and ineffective itemized tax deductions are good ideas.

But I'm apprehensive about many of their suggestions. They say that we should implement options that shift taxation from income to consumption, and from businesses to families. I see red flags for many Kentuckians: low-income and middle-income citizens who are already paying a larger share of their income to state taxes than Kentucky's wealthiest.

Some of the more frightening options: taxing utilities for residential users; extending sales tax to include car and appliance repairs. These will disproportionately impact lower-income Kentuckians. At my church, I receive more and more requests for help from families who cannot afford to put food on the table now. Ask your place of worship about the number of people asking for help to pay utility bills. Does taxing utilities make sense?

The work of the commission is coming to a close. I urge all concerned citizens, social service agencies and members of faith communities to stay informed and engaged.

We in Kentucky are a commonwealth. The definition should not be lost; we are united in common interests and care for each other.

The Blue Ribbon Commission offers an opportunity for hope that we can bring fairness to all Kentucky citizens, and build toward the Kentucky that we deserve by raising revenue now.

Many Kentuckians have been doing their parts. Now it's time for the commission to stand with us, and our commonwealth.

Read the economists' final set of options: http://ltgovernor.ky.gov/taxreform/Documents/20120919/20120920_ConsultantReport.pdf.