If there is one critical lesson that we can learn from the last dozen years, it’s that government works best only when it is open and honest with its constituents. Although we struggle for more access and transparency, governments at all levels are still reluctant to open up. This is especially true when citizens, concerned about the economy, ask about taxes. Where does our money go? How is it spent?
In a time when government budgets face growing criticism it seems only right and fair that we, as taxpayers, should have the opportunity to see where that money is being used on a personal level.
Some of the results are fairly obvious, such as the expansion of our state highway system, but what about other services behind the scenes? How much of our taxes go towards our schools, small business grants, farm subsidies, state parks, or benefits to working people struggling to make ends meet? Because of this lack of clarity, made worse by an economy struggling to find stable footing, legitimate or necessary services for the public good face intense, and oftentimes misdirected, scrutiny.
If you go to the grocery store, pay a credit card, or get treated at the doctor’s office, you have the expectation of being given a receipt for the goods or services that you’ve paid out of your own pocket. Sometimes it can be very difficult to read through the jargon, but with each bill there’s a certain sense of empowerment and investment. You can go back to the receipt and look to see exactly how much you paid for that loaf of bread, flu shot, or night out on the town, and can budget for it accordingly.
Once we’ve paid our dues to the government, however, it seems as if the money descends into a black hole where little information emerges. What, exactly, are we paying for when we sign that check over to the Department of Revenue?
In order to have a reasonable conversation about government and taxation, it seems only sensible and proper that our elected officials be willing to provide the public with the same kind of information that we have come to expect from other businesses. We should encourage our elected officials in Madison to propose legislation that would permit the government to produce tax receipts, itemized for each individual taxpayer, that the public could voluntarily receive from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue once they have paid their yearly taxes. While we should not delude ourselves into thinking such legislation would immediately resolve deep political divisions on the budget, a public that is better informed about where their money is being spent can only be beneficial for our state in the long term.