An 18-year-old Mike Brown was walking to his grandmother’s house one summer afternoon in Ferguson Missouri. An officer stops him for jaywalking. He ends up lying dead in the road for four hours. Walter Scott is pulled over for a broken taillight in a high poverty area in South Carolina. He flees- presumably out of fear of back child support owed to the state. Minutes later, he is dead on the ground, shot in the back. A 16-year-old girl is thrown across a classroom by a school cop for failing to relinquish her cell phone. A 17-year-old boy with a small knife, walking away from officers, is shot 16 times — 15 of those bullets pumped into his already dead body in the middle of the Chicago road.
The list of these tragic deaths is long. Over 1,000 deaths have occurred at the hands of law enforcement so far this year. Black males are 3.5 times more likely to become victims than their white counterparts.
Cell phone videos of police brutality have forced this country to confront the ways poverty and race play out in city after city, school after school, jail after jail. We know the factors underlying America’s legacy of racism contribute to this crisis. But one factor largely has been overlooked.
When the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the shooting of Mike Brown, it found an excessive pursuit of revenue through over-aggressive policing of minor violations such as traffic and municipal code offenses. Further, it found racial bias on the part of authorities against the majority black population in Ferguson.
The connection between police violence and the reliance on law enforcement to raise revenue, however, is but the last link in a chain of causation that begins with federal tax policy.
Any county, city, or town relies both on funding sources it can control and those it can’t. The first category includes license fees, traffic tickets, and fines for violations of local ordinances, such as jaywalking. The second category consists of tax revenue that each state shares with its various subdivisions.
If revenue from state revenue sharing decreases, a city, town or county faces pressure to increase revenue from sources under local control. Will there be pushback from citizens? Yes, but that pushback will be weakest in poor communities. Increasing the cost of licenses or building permits requires official action by local government leaders. That carries a stiff political cost. But increased code enforcement in poor communities? That just takes a phone call or lunch at a quiet restaurant.
Changes in revenue sharing by the states, then, are the link preceding reliance on law enforcement to raise revenue. There are exceptions, but in order to balance budgets, states typically have squeezed their counties and cities. Arizona, for example, recently balanced its budget on the backs of counties, cities and school districts. Arizona has one of the highest rates per capita of killings by police. Phoenix, its capital and largest city, has been one of the country’s most dangerous cities for police killings.
So, why the shortfall in state tax revenue? Tax cuts. Over the past few decades, the states have engaged in a vicious race to the bottom, trying to lure businesses and wealthy individuals with low tax rates. That race originated with changes in federal tax policy that infected the politics of state tax policy.
Consider the federal estate tax. Prior to 2001, states shared in federal estate tax revenue simply by imposing an estate tax according to a federally established schedule. The tax cost their residents nothing, since a person’s federal estate tax obligation was reduced, dollar-for-dollar, by the state-level estate tax he paid. Every state participated. Politically, it was free money.
The Bush tax cuts eliminated that revenue sharing structure, replacing it with one far less generous to the states. Consequently, 32 states have abandoned their estate tax – and the revenue derived from it.
The connection between federal and state income tax policy changes is less obvious, but the impact is the same. The federal income tax benefit associated with state income taxes has fallen, thus increasing the real cost of those state income taxes to those who pay them. That opened the door for anti-tax ideologues, most noticeably the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push for reductions in state tax rates, with an associated reduction in revenues.
The bottom line: ill-conceived changes in federal tax policy contributed to local revenue problems and the fraught atmosphere in which a teenager was shot dead over what started as a jaywalking violation. Structural and cultural racism can’t be addressed by tax policy alone. Nonetheless, because federal tax policy contributed to the increase in police violence, it also must play a role in reducing it.
Millionaires and billionaires and the corporations they own must face higher nominal federal tax rates, with an offsetting federal tax reduction for state level taxes they pay. Generous federal subsidies will force the hands of state legislators to impose higher taxes, which in turn could be shared with cities and towns. That can create the space for a reduction in the number of confrontations between poor people and police that end tragically.
Unfortunately, no presidential candidate recognizes the link between federal tax policy and police violence. The tax plans of both Trump and Bush would reduce the portion of state income tax payments offset by a reduction in federal tax liabilities. Marco Rubio’s plan is worse. It eliminates the federal deduction for state income tax altogether. Don’t expect any better from the Democrats. They tend to treat the federal income tax deduction for state income tax as a loophole, so it’s unlikely they’ll seek to increase the value of that deduction to taxpayers.
Perhaps by 2020 our candidates will focus on this. Or maybe 2024. The question is: how many more Mike Browns who jaywalk on the way to Grandma’s house will be left dead in the street before presidential candidates make addressing this toxic blend of racism and revenue pressures a priority?