Barrett: Now back to the real world, where sales tax rates matter

Barrett: Now back to the real world, where sales tax rates matter

November 20th, 2011 by Steve Barrett in Opinion Columns

We all have shortcuts on our mental keyboards -- things we see or hear that prompt a predetermined response.

If someone begins a sentence, "When all is said and done ...," it takes an act of intense willpower for me not to interject, "... more is said than is done."

The phrase "To make a long story short" inevitably elicits from me, even at imprudent moments, a mouthy "Too late."

The mention of an overcast day inspires a certain someone I know to issue on cue the truism, "You can get a worse sunburn on a cloudy day than on a sunny day."

But the most common preprogrammed response I've noticed in Chattanooga -- besides expressions of irritation following the utterance of the words "Jimmy Carter" -- is about taxes. At least weekly I hear somebody point out that sales taxes are lower in Georgia than in Tennessee.

I'll mention to a friend who works in Tennessee that a grocery chain has a special on the steaks he favors. He insists on waiting until he can get down to Georgia to buy them "because sales taxes are lower there."

Another friend, told of bargains at a beloved department store, opts to go to its Dalton location "because the taxes aren't as high."

Still others admonish anyone who mentions visiting a warehouse store in Chattanooga with an accusatory, "Don't you know how much you can save on taxes at the one in Catoosa County?" (And an implied, "What kind of shopper are you?!")

So in my corner of the galaxy, the notion that sales taxes are petty considerations is roughly equivalent to the view that beluga whales make low-maintenance house pets.

Which brings us to Whitfield County, Ga., where voters have defeated in resounding fashion a 1 percent sales tax increase. Not a single precinct voted for the increase, and it is thought to be one of the most overwhelming rejections of a sales tax hike in state history.

Considering the 12.5 percent unemployment rate in metro Dalton, no mystery attaches to the voters' decision: They want to hold down expenses rather than funnel more money to things like park improvements and equipment purchases.

And yet, as Times Free Press reporter Mariann Martin reported, "People who supported the tax increase say no one looks at a 1- or 2-cent difference in sales tax when they decide where to shop."

And that's true -- if by "no one" you mean "practically everyone."

Set aside the sales tax chasm between Georgia and Tennessee, and focus on the smaller gap between Whitfield County and surrounding counties in Georgia. If nobody thinks that that comparatively small difference matters, why on earth did 60 percent of voters in Whitfield reject the increase?

They did it for the same reason that you see herds of cars at a station where the price of a gallon of gas is a penny lower than it is at the deserted joint across the street: People respond to even marginally lower taxes and lower prices -- more, evidently, than they respond to other people who keep telling them they aren't supposed to care about minor cost differences.

Maybe that's because they realize those differences aren't so minor. A 1- or 2-cent gap in sales taxes on the quarterly replenishment of the office Tic Tac supply is no biggie. But a 1- or 2-cent difference on most purchases, large and small, over the course of a year can be massive -- particularly for those who are unemployed or trying to support a family on low wages.

Residents of Whitfield County have now made that point with their votes -- and have rebuked the elitism of at least some of those who casually dismissed their objections to higher taxes.

They never learn

Here's hoping against hope that Republicans in Congress don't cave in this week to tax increases that will never go away in exchange for spending cuts that will never fully materialize.

And if they do cave, here's betting they'll be mystified when a passel of them get voted into well-deserved retirement a year from now.