The possible shifts in the foundations of tax bases

Governments are dependent on tax bases for revenue. Hopefully, the tax base meets financial expectations and if things are going well, the taxes bring increased revenues, leading to more spending (and saving?) possibilities. But what happens when tax bases decrease?

This is an issue facing a number of government bodies and a number of taxes are affected:

-I was reminded of this again by this piece (h/t Instapundit) which suggests that increasing income taxes on the rich may not work out in the long run as economic troubles can greatly affect the incomes of the rich.

-Property taxes are affected by the assessed value of properties. If property values are down, such as in this economic crisis where it appears housing prices will be depressed for quite a while, then tax revenue may go down. (Or they may not – can local communities really afford to have less money coming in through property taxes?)

-So called “vice taxes,” on things like cigarettes, may be self-defeating: as people smoke less, the revenue will slowly dry up.

-The gas tax will be interesting to watch in future years: as the government pushes for more electric vehicles and with higher gas prices, this could mean that less gasoline is purchased. Money to pay for new roads and maintenance will have to come from somewhere.

A couple of questions about these different taxes:

1. Is the uncertainty about tax revenues in the last few years really that different from other points in history? If not, what have people done in the past?

2. Might we expect to see some major changes in taxation in the coming years as governments look for different (perhaps more stable?) or more sources of revenue?

3. How are sales taxes or VATs affected by economic crises?

(The realm of taxes is not my area of expertise but I do know the importance of some of this to communities: limited or decreasing property and sales taxes lead to big issues with budgets which then affect services which then angers residents.)

A few comments by Joel (3/31/2011):

One way that cities and states are seeking to increase collection revenues is through enhanced sales tax enforcement.  As Amazon is finding out, for example, governments have their ways of pressuring online retailers.

Of course, to a certain extent, this is simply turning into an arms race, with businesses increasing their lobbying budgets and hiring more tax attorneys.

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