Thursday, October 13, 2005

Don reaches out to senior citizens

If you're an Alabamian who's 65 or older, former Gov. Don Siegelman doesn't want you to pay state sales tax on food or over-the-counter medicine. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate's proposed tax cut would cost the state coffers up to $100 million a year, which he suggests recouping by "closing tax loopholes" for out-of-state companies.

Senior citizens tend to vote in larger percentages than other age groups, and of course such a scheme would be very popular with many older voters. Political calculations aside, though, Siegelman's plan seems on the surface like a well-intentioned attempt to help senior citizens who live on small fixed incomes. However, the proposal would provide a blanket exemption to all seniors regardless of their incomes, which makes little sense if the purpose is to help the poor, and a tax break based on an age threshold could invite fraud.

There's no doubt that Alabama's regressive tax system could use some major adjustments to lighten the load on poor families, and Siegelman's idea to close corporate tax loopholes sounds, in the abstract, like a step toward reducing that burden. Sales taxes are too high in this state, and a plan to offset cuts in them with business-tax hikes almost certainly would be less controversial among everyday Alabamians than corresponding increases in personal income or property taxes.

Still, higher taxes of any kind are a tough sell in Alabama, and lawmakers would have to be careful to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court can't strike down any "loophole-closing" legislation as a violation of the Constitution's Dormant Commerce Clause. Another consideration would be the Privileges and Immunities Clause, but it applies only to citizens, not to corporations, so it's likely inapplicable to the kind of measures Siegelman suggests.

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