Each spring, the mysterious being we call Taxman plays the part of the Tooth Fairy. Taxman says if I put a little check mark next to the political party or parties of our choice on my state tax form, the political organization I have selected will miraculously get a dollar.
"This won't increase your tax or decrease your refund," Taxman informs me. Huh. It won't cost me anything, and yet they'll get a dollar. I wonder how that works. Much the same way my son and daughter find a dollar under their pillows after they lose a tooth, I guess: magic.
Back in the real world, the trick is easy to explain. The designation of a dollar on the state tax form (or three dollars on the federal form) results in the diversion of tax dollars to politicos. Every dollar earmarked for political parties is a dollar that gets spirited away and doesn't make it to the general fund used to finance the rest of state government. In essence, the taxpayer is voting for dollars to be diverted to partisan causes. Those votes are then tabulated, turned into money and shipped off to the political parties based on the outcome. True, it doesn't reduce a person's tax refund or increase tax liability. It just transfers wealth from taxpayers to political parties and, in a strange way, makes us all participate in partisan politics whether we want to or not.
Since 1976, Idaho taxpayers have paid a total of nearly $1.6 million to benefit the state's political parties ($735,600 for Idaho Democrats, $728,400 for Republicans and rest to the third parties). This year, taxpayers donated $34,320 to the coffers of the Constitution, Democrat, Libertarian and Republican parties. In 2008, taxpayers contributed $71,429 to political parties, slightly less than a year's wages for two Idaho State Police recruits.
The campaign checkoff arrived on federal tax forms in 1972. The concept was to reduce the dependency of presidential campaigns on donations. In 1975, Idaho lawmakers succeeded in passing similar legislation on the state level. The first state checkoff in 1976 generated almost $46,400.
On the state level, I'm not sure what the checkoff is really accomplishing apart from siphoning tax dollars away from the state's general fund. And even if it were accomplishing something meaningful, it's doubtful that it's as important as other functions in state government that are on the chopping block this year.
Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who administers the state's election laws, has not taken a position on whether public campaign financing should continue in Idaho, said chief deputy Tim Hurst.
"The taxpayer makes the decision whether or not to give money to the parties," said Hurst. "If no designation is made, taxes (available to the general fund) are not reduced by $1."
If state lawmakers are serious about solving the state's budget crisis without raising taxes, this proposition should be fairly light lifting: Get rid of the campaign fund checkoff. End public financing of political campaigns. It won't erase the state's budget shortfall but would make a small dent. And it'll get our friendly, neighborhood Taxman out of the magic business.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].