Pages tagged "taxes"

Budgets & Taxes Messaging


Persuadable voters are extremely conflicted about budget and tax issues.

First the bad news: According to the Gallup poll, Americans think that on the federal level 50 cents of every tax dollar is wasted, on the state level 42 cents is wasted, and on the local level 37 cents is wasted. Remarkably, independent voters think more money is wasted than voters in the Republican base. Not coincidentally, most voters are wildly misinformed about how much governments spend on specific programs, especially for the social safety net.

But there’s also good news: When named program-by-program, with just a few small exceptions (such as federal foreign aid), Americans favor spending more rather than less. They understand we need to spend more for schools, roads, health care and environmental protection—and they know we need to spend less on subsidies and tax loopholes for the rich and special interests. About two-thirds of Americans think that the rich and large corporations are paying too little in taxes.

These conflicting beliefs mean that message framing is especially important when talking about budgets and taxes.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

You favor more spending without being very specific about the program

You favor higher taxes without being very specific that your policy targets the very rich who aren’t paying their fair share

Tax/budget fairness or justice

A level playing field for everyone

A tax/budget system that works for all of us

Rigging the rules, gaming the system, stacking the deck 

Why . . .

Voters are for tax and budget fairness, and so are you. There are a number of phrases that express the idea of fairness, listed above. Whatever you do, express your goal early and often in the conversation—without an expression of progressive values, voters may think conservative policies are the fair ones.

Right wingers try to blame tax and budget problems on the poor, immigrants, government employees or penny-ante cheaters. Voters are perfectly willing to embrace that narrative. It is your job to direct attention to the real problem—that wealthy individuals and big corporations have rigged budgets and taxes on all levels of government in order to further enrich themselves. While arguing for fairness, you need to be explicit in explaining that your policies are designed to take a system that is stacked in favor of the rich and make it more equitable for middle class Americans.

In general, this is what you should say:

Say . . .

Our tax and budget policies must be fair to everyone. The fact is, my opponent’s policies are not fair; they rig the system to benefit the rich over the rest of us. I will work to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot, everyone gives their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. 

Why . . .

This short narrative begins and ends with the value of fairness. It distinguishes you from your conservative opponent and it ties the fairness problem to the rich.

Specifically about state and local budgets

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

There is enough money




There are real limits on what our state/city/county can spend

I support a responsible, balanced budget

Let’s strengthen the state/local economy for the long term

A plan for our future

Why . . .

No matter the actual situation in your local jurisdiction, voters remain worried about budget deficits and government debt. You must acknowledge that you share those concerns and pledge to support a reasonable, balanced budget. At the same time, voters understand that radical cuts are shortsighted and the prudent course is to “strengthen the state/local economy for the long term.” Voters do not respond well to the claim that “there is enough money” to fund new programs. Voters believe governments face very real limits on what they can or should spend, and language that seems to imply a desire to write blank checks will undercut your message.

Talking about budget expenditures as a series of investments doesn’t work because it makes voters think they are consumers of government who should get a personal rather than a community return on that investment. But you can use a related concept—talking about a budget as a plan or blueprint for our future.

Say . . .

Our state/city/county has no money to waste. I will pinch every penny I can to help craft a balanced budget that’s fair to everyone. But remember, a budget is a plan for our future. It’s about what we need to spend today in order to build a better tomorrow. So I’m going to look for solutions that build our state/local economy for the long term. My opponent calls for extreme cuts, which over time will benefit the rich and hurt all the rest of us. I’m for a fair budget that works for all of us. 

Why . . .

This narrative begins by empathizing with voters’ concerns and reassuring them that you are on their side. It focuses on fairness and suggests that the rich are the problem. And it makes the argument that we need to build for the future. All of these ideas are popular.

Specifically about state and local taxes

Voters are pretty cynical about taxes. They think that taxes are unfair, and you certainly agree that tax laws have been engineered to unfairly benefit the rich and special interests. So don’t defend taxes, defend tax fairness.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Tax relief

Taxes are a necessary evil

Tax fairness

Tax giveaways and tax loopholes

Private tax subsidies

Rigged system

Why . . .

Don’t say tax relief because it frames taxes as an affliction in need of a remedy. The problem is not the existence of taxes, it is that federal, state, and local taxes are riddled with giveaways and loopholes for the politically powerful. You might also call them private tax subsidies. Whatever you do, don’t defend the unpopular tax system. And don’t begin with a raft of statistics either. Start by empathizing with voters.

Say . . .

Our tax system is unfair. The tax burden on working families has increased while rich people and large corporations pocket more and more tax giveaways, and that’s wrong. My opponent’s policies would make the current rigged system even more unfair with greater tax cuts for the rich. My policies are based on the principle of equal opportunity—everyone should pay their fair share.

Why . . .

No one likes to pay taxes, and persuadable voters don’t want to hear a lecture that taxes are the dues we pay for a civilized society. But people reluctantly accept that they should pay their fair share. Interestingly, a progressive monologue about taxes becomes less popular if it begins with unfairness and then goes on to say what government could do with the money. This is because persuadable voters don’t really believe the government needs more money; they believe one-third to on

e-half of tax dollars are wasted. Talking about the good things government can do with the taxes it collects also evokes voters’ biases against tax-and-spend politicians. So stick with your plea that the powerful need to pay their fair share.

Here’s an illustration of how to use this language to respond about a specific tax:

Say . . .

You asked about eliminating the inheritance tax. First, let’s admit that our tax system is unfair. It is rigged with tax giveaways and loopholes that benefit a few, usually the rich, at the expense of all the rest of us. So if we eliminate the inheritance tax, who benefits and who’s hurt? For every two hundred people who die, only the estate of the single richest person pays any federal tax at all. Eliminating that estate tax means enriching that one wealthy family, but it also means hurting all of us because our taxes would be raised to make up the difference. My opponent’s policy would make the current rigged system even more unfair with yet another tax cut for the rich. My policies are based on the principle of equal opportunity—everyone should pay their fair share.

Here are a couple of debating points you may have to deal with:

Right wing argument: Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no taxes.

Say . . .

Everyone pays taxes, although it’s true that children, the elderly, and the unemployed generally don’t pay one particular type of tax—the federal income tax. Nevertheless, everyone who earns a salary pays taxes for Social Security and Medicare. Everyone who buys products at a store or owns a home pays taxes. Everyone who has a telephone or cable service pays taxes. When all the federal, state and local taxes and fees are added together, almost everybody pays about 20 to 30 percent of their income. But, the fact is, the richest one percent of people own over one-third of all the combined wealth in America—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, cars, jewelry. The richest five percent own nearly two-thirds of all the wealth. They do not pay anywhere near their fair share in taxes.

Right wing argument: Our government is paying too much for social welfare programs.

Say . . .

The great majority of government spending on individuals is for programs like Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits where Americans have already done their service or paid their money into the system. They’re not getting a hand-out, they’re getting what they are owed. The real hand-outs are subsidies and tax loopholes that overwhelmingly benefit the richest individuals and biggest corporations. That’s what we need to cut. 

Taxation Policy

Our Progressive Vision: On the federal, state and local levels, our tax policies must be fair to everyone. The fact is, our tax system is thoroughly unfair; it is rigged with loopholes and giveaways that benefit a few, usually rich, individuals and big corporations, at the expense of all the rest of us. Everyone should pay their fair share, and to accomplish that, we must: (1) require disclosure of tax giveaways; (2) eliminate those giveaways that unfairly benefit the rich and powerful; (3) raise tax rates on the rich and where otherwise needed; and (4) cut taxes for people who cannot reasonably afford to pay them.

Require disclosure of tax giveaways

Americans believe, by overwhelming margins, that our tax system is unfair and that rich individuals and large corporations are not paying their fair share. In order to fix the system, we need publicly available information. Governments should list all tax expenditures and require that each must sunset unless regularly renewed. In addition, topline information from the tax returns of large companies should be publicly disclosed. Individuals and big corporations are getting wealthier while simultaneously paying less in taxes. To address the problem, we need to know that they’re doing it and how they’re doing it.

Eliminate unfair tax giveaways

Almost every government’s tax code is riddled with giveaways for the rich and powerful, many of which constitute little more than legalized tax evasion. Citizens want to make these systems fairer. This requires information, analysis, and the political will to put average taxpayers first. State and local governments should hire more auditors, investigators and attorneys to collect from big corporate scofflaws and empower whistleblowers to challenge tax giveaways.

Raise rates on the rich  

Conservatives tend to focus their complaints on the federal income tax because nearly every other type of tax, especially on the state and local levels, is regressive. States with income taxes should make their brackets more progressive and add a surtax on extra-high incomes. States should raise inheritance taxes on the very richest estates. At the same time, there are a few “sin” taxes which could be raised not for the revenue but to discourage dangerous behaviors—like smoking, drinking and gambling—and the extra monies could be used to treat people who are addicted to nicotine, alcohol and gambling.

Cut taxes on those who can’t afford them

Just as some high-income individuals and businesses are paying too little in taxes, there are some low-income people who are paying too much. States should raise the Earned Income Tax Credit and the dependent care tax credit. States and localities should ensure that there is a property tax circuit breaker and a tax deferral system that prevents low-and moderate-income Americans from losing their homes.



Disclosure of corporate taxes

Americans believe that large corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes, and they’re right. The situation in Illinois is a typical example: two-thirds of corporations pay no state income tax at all, only eight percent of state revenue comes from corporate income taxes, and the corporate share of taxes has been declining over the years. The first step to fix our broken system is transparency. We don’t know enough details about how corporations manage to evade taxes. We need public disclosure. To be specific, all publicly traded companies should disclose a summary of the amount they pay in state income taxes, including their tax rate and basis (income, credits and deductions). It is true that we don’t and shouldn’t require such disclosure of individuals, but corporations are not people. Corporations are legal structures, created by state law, and they do not need or deserve the privacy rights of individuals.

Sunset tax expenditures

A “tax expenditure” is a form of stealth government spending. Giving exemptions, deductions or credits to certain groups or for certain activities has the same effect as handing them money, and governments divert billions of dollars this way. Tax expenditures never receive the same scrutiny that budget expenditures do. While budget line items are reviewed and adjusted every year, few governments have any mechanism for reviewing tax expenditures. The fact is, many tax expenditures are unjustified giveaways to the rich, many were not properly targeted to achieve their stated objective, and others were justified when enacted but no longer make economic sense. Thus, each tax exemption, deduction and credit should be examined periodically to weigh its costs, benefits and relevance to community goals. The only effective way to bring fairness to the tax expenditure system is to require each to undergo a thorough review and be re-approved through the legislative process. This is accomplished by requiring that all tax expenditures sunset every few years.

Hire tax investigators

Many wealthy individuals and corporations evade taxes. One study indicated that people who make between $500,000 and $1 million per year underreport their incomes by more than 20 percent. That means states and localities lose billions of dollars each year to tax evasion. The fact is, most government tax collection agencies don’t have enough auditors and enforcers to get the job done. The solution is to hire more enforcers and their work will pay for itself.

Raise the inheritance tax

Over the past several years, progressives have been completely outmaneuvered on the inheritance tax. Many believe the federal estate tax applies to them, even though 99.5 percent of Americans are exempt. Nevertheless, the richest one percent in America own over one-third of all the combined wealth in our country—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, and personal property like cars and jewelry. The richest five percent own nearly two-thirds of all wealth. We cannot make a dent in the problem of economic inequality without a vigorous inheritance tax and the effort will never have momentum until states lead the way. 

Credit Checks, Death Penalty, Public Education and More

The Public Leadership Institute is a nonprofit educational group organized to raise public awareness on key issues and to develop public leaders who will improve the economic and social conditions of all Americans. To join, click here.

Prohibit credit checks for employment: Ten states prohibit or strongly restrict the use of credit checks in hiring, including CA, CO, CT, HI, IL, MD, NV, OR, VT and WA, because the practice irrationally discriminates against many people (like those who had earlier been sick or injured). The Fair Employment Practices Act, based on District of Columbia legislation, bans such use.

Time to kill the death penalty: Opponents of the death penalty can follow their consciences while simultaneously arguing from a strong moral and factual position: that we should instead spend society’s time and money on policies that actually reduce crime and make law-abiding Americans safer. Read about it on IdeaLog, our blog intended to raise eyebrows and engage minds.

How to talk about public education: Wednesday, August 26 @3pm Eastern, 2pm Central, 1pm Mountain, Noon Pacific. Public schools are under attack from conservatives who are, essentially, trying to demolish public education. To win this argument, we need to understand public opinion and use points of agreement to push back against vouchers, school closings, narrowing of the curriculum, and ideological attacks on teachers. Register for our webinar here.

New government accounting standards for tax subsidies now apply: For the first time, rules applying to both state and local governments require that Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) include a wide range of tax subsidies. Read about it here.

E-cigarette usage surges, legislators respond: Ten percent of U.S. adults now vape, about four times more than in 2013. Big tobacco companies have largely bought the vaping industry. Many states and localities have responded with new laws, but there is much more to do.

Looking for interesting new policy ideas? Our Progressive Agenda for States and Localities contains hundreds of ideas on many subjects, including hyperlinks to model bills. It’s all right here.


Tax Fairness, Fair Markets, the Gun Lobby and More

The Public Leadership Institute is a nonprofit educational group that helps turn state and local elected officials, advocates and grassroots activists into progressive champions. To join, click here.

Tax Enforcement Fairness Act: Americans believe that rich individuals and big corporations do not pay their fair share of federal, state or local taxes. They overwhelmingly support fairer enforcement of tax law. This model would dedicate money for tax authorities to crack down on “major tax evasion.”

Promote “Fair Markets” not “Free Markets”: To say the words “free markets” is to perpetuate a dangerous right-wing myth and hurt the progressive cause. When we say “fair markets,” we remind voters of their firm belief that our economic system is rigged to favor the rich, and that governments should do something about it. Read about this on IdeaLog, our blog intended to raise eyebrows and engage minds.

How to improve elections and voting at the local level: Tuesday, March 24 @3:00pm Eastern, 2:00pm Central, 1pm Mountain, Noon Pacific. The Fair Elections Legal Network will report the status of local election reform efforts and describe a variety of tactics that localities can use to make registration and voting easier. Register here to participate.

Gun ownership is declining, so why is the gun lobby so powerful? In the 1970s, about half of American households had a gun. The General Social Survey recently reported that now 31 percent of households are armed, a record low. Read our Politiblog to learn about the decline in gun owning coupled with some alarming gun statistics that you’ve never seen before.

The National Journal reports “Americans Give Up On Washington”: Last week, National Journal published a poll that found Americans overwhelmingly “feel that the best solutions for the country’s problems will come from local communities, state governments, and institutions” rather than from the federal level.

Compendium of State and Local Legislation: What has happened in the states, cities, counties and towns so far this year? Read about it in our Compendium. And we welcome input! If you have additions, please contact Michael Weiss at

Community Service, Science of Persuasion, Budgets & Taxes and More

The Public Leadership Institute is a nonprofit educational group that helps turn state and local elected officials, advocates and grassroots activists into progressive champions. To join, click here.

Community Service Ombudsman Act: Nonprofits now provide a great deal of the social services to our constituents. Here’s a way you can help: Use this model bill to create a Community Services Ombudsman who works to improve charity groups’ interactions with your government. This legislation is simple, it costs little, and it has the potential to substantially improve services to the needy.

The Science of Persuasion—Part One: Cognitive science tells us that persuasion is hard. Too often we unknowingly cause the reticular activating system (RAS) in our listeners’ brains to engage in “confirmation bias” and effectively turn off access to the cerebral cortex, the rational part of the brain. How do we restructure our arguments to avoid the reactive brain and reach the reflective brain instead? Read about it on IdeaLog, our blog intended to raise eyebrows and engage minds.

How to persuade on budgets and taxes: Wednesday, February 11 @3:00pm Eastern, 2:00pm Central, 1:00pm Mountain, noon Pacific. Many of us are in the middle of budget and tax debates and we all know this is a hard topic. This webinar will discuss how to apply the science of persuasion (see IdeaLog above) to these issues. Register here to participate.

Alert members or constituents that February 15 is the deadline for individual ACA coverage: The current open enrollment period for individual insurance plans ends on February 15. Maybe you’d like to send out an email alerting members or constituents? A sample email is here.

Watch out—right wingers trying to call a federal constitutional convention: There’s a new effort, led by ALEC, to call a convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution. This could be a disaster, fundamentally changing individual rights and the roll of government. If you hear of serious efforts in your state, please warn us by emailing Michael Weiss at

Order printed copies of the Progressive Agenda: The 2015 Progressive Agenda is ready for distribution. You can download a PDF copy here. If you are willing, we will send you printed copies to distribute to your colleagues. Order here or contact Michael Weiss at

Five Progressive Wedge Issues for 2015

For years, conservatives used “wedge issues” to split moderates from progressives—measures like criminalizing flag burning, cutting “welfare,” and (until recently) banning same-sex marriage. They still do that, of course, but the Tea Party has forced conservatives to put greater emphasis on policies with little popular appeal.

It’s time for progressives to promote some wedge issues of our own. In 2015, progressive wedge issues tend to fall into three categories: (1) addressing the way our economic system has been rigged to benefit the rich; (2) supporting important groups that conservatives target; and (3) promoting issues that drive conservative extremists to say crazy things.

The minimum wage remains a powerful wedge issue but it’s not listed among the five because it already has been or is being pushed just about everywhere. These policies—which hyperlink to model bills featured in the Progressive Agenda for States and Localities—should be introduced in both red and blue states. If you can’t enact the legislation, use these battles to organize the grassroots and show voters the differences between conservatives and progressives. Let them see that we are the ones on their side.

Read more

How to argue over the Thanksgiving table

In the wake of the disastrous 2014 election, you might be dreading Thanksgiving a bit. Every year your loud-mouthed right-wing Uncle Mort insists on debating politics over the dinner table. This year, you expect, he’ll be louder than ever.

There is no point in trying to “educate” Mort. Instead, follow the basic rules of persuasion that we describe in our book, Voicing Our Values. Find a point of agreement and use values to show that you understand his point of view, and that overall, you share the same goals. It’s very unlikely you can get Mort to change his mind, but you will throw him off his game and connect with other “persuadable” people around the table.

Below are short discussions of three issues the might come up: (1) immigration, (2) Obamacare, and (3) taxes and the 47 percent. For much more about these—and dozens of other policies—consult Voicing Our Values.


Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “But they broke the law!” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the solution is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken patchwork of immigration policies.

Read more

License Plate Reader, Shock Poll, Tax Policies and more

The Public Leadership Institute is a nonprofit educational group that helps turn state and local elected officials, advocates and grassroots activists into progressive champions. To join, click here.

Limit license plate reader databases: All over the nation, police agencies are using license plate readers which tell them exactly which vehicle was in a certain location at a certain date and time. While there are some uses to the data, police are currently storing millions of records about the cars of innocent Americans. The model License Plate Privacy Act, based on a newly-enacted law in Tennessee, limits the amount of time government agencies can hold on to those records.

Understand the anti-teacher narratives: If you listen to the advocates for increased standardized testing and decreased rights for teachers, you will hear a series of narratives or stories that underlie all their arguments. Read about narratives, and how to rebut them, on IdeaLog, our blog intended to raise eyebrows and engage minds.

Shock poll—government regulation has become a political winner: Wednesday, October 8 @3pm Eastern, 2pm Central, 1pm Mountain, noon Pacific. There is brand-new eye-opening polling data from Celinda Lake which shows that Americans overwhelmingly favor government regulation, especially when it’s described in a populist way. Register here to join this surprising discussion.

Voters are exasperatingly uninformed: It is not just your imagination. A new Annenberg poll finds that only about 1/3rd of Americans know who controls the U.S. House or Senate, only about 1/3rd can name all three branches of government, and about 1/3rd can’t even name one branch.

New report on four key tax policies in the states: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has a brand-new 34-page report describing and discussing four key tax policies.

Victories and defeats in 2014: This up-to-date resource provides ideas for progressive legislation and warns you of right-wing campaigns: The Compendium of State and Local Legislation.

Job Piracy, Millionaires' Tax, Defining Freedom, and more

The Public Leadership Institute is a nonprofit educational group that helps turn state and local elected officials, advocates and grassroots activists into progressive champions. To join, click here.

Model Legislation from ALICE

Millionaires’ tax: From 1995 to 2010, the one percent richest Americans saw their state and local taxes drop by nearly 30 percent as a share of income. State and local governments need money and it’s good politics to focus on making the rich pay their fair share. ALICE has legislation and resources on the millionaires’ tax—and 1,500 other model and exemplary bills for both state and local policymakers.

Freedom Is Free: The Fourth of July is a time for both well-meaning and evil-intending people to misuse the word “freedom.” We need to push back. Read about it on IdeaLog, our blog intended to raise eyebrows and engage minds.

Webinar of the Week

How to talk about voting rights: Wednesday, July 16 @2pm Eastern, 1pm Central, noon Mountain, 11am Pacific (Note the unusual time). Communications and elections experts will present the best arguments to support voting rights legislation. Register here to join the discussion and find out which arguments work and which don’t.

Resources You Can Use

Stop job piracy: It is all-too-common for localities to use subsidies to attract businesses from nearby communities. All this does is waste taxpayer dollars. Good Jobs First has a new report that explains the solution: anti-piracy agreements like the ones used in Denver, Colorado and Dayton, Ohio.

Early childhood education support systems: Opportunity to Learn has a new guide that gives advocates a blueprint for developing better-coordinated, early support systems using a whole-child and whole-family approach. Read about it here.

From the Public Leadership Institute

Progressive message framing: Just published, the Second Edition of Voicing Our Values. Download a free PDF of the book here or buy a printed copy on Amazon here.

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