Sunday, October 08, 2006

Misleading Tax Story in Morning Call

The Morning Call, and its readers, got played yesterday.

The Call's lead story--"Valley Region Pays Some of the Highest Taxes in Nation"--devotes breathless, front-page prose to the Lehigh Valley's property tax burden.

Here's the cheeky lede:

"Guess what, Lehigh Valley region? We pay a lot of taxes. Oh, you knew that. Then how about this? Property taxes are higher in Bucks County than in the California counties of Santa Barbara, San Francisco and San Diego."

And here's the requisite shocked-senior quote: ''Holy God. That is high...I would think California, New York and other places are higher.''

The story reports that the figures are from the Tax Foundation--which the Call labels "a non-partisan tax research group based in Washington, DC."

The Call got played. The Tax Foundation is a "non-partisan tax research group" in the same sense that Swiftboat Veterans for Truth is an independent citizens group.

The Tax Foundation is a notorious, right-wing anti-tax club founded in 1937 by business magnates upset with FDR's New Deal. As you can read here and here, the group is almost entirely funded by big business and right-wing foundations.

The group sponsors the so-called Tax Freedom Day--the date when, if our whole check were going to taxes, we would clear our burden--and promotes the hell out of it.

As a quick Lexis-Nexis search shows, the group is almost always labeled "conservative" or "right-wing" when its figures are used in news stories. Not at the Morning Call.

The label is crucial, of course, because readers need to know whether the source of an article's data is truly in it for "non-partisan research" or if--as in this case--the group's explicit mission is to raise America's "tax consciousness" so that we can roll back the few social programs that remain from that despised New Deal. The group has a right to air its views, but the Call has an obligation to let its readers know who's paying their bills and what the funders expect in return.

The anti-tax evangelism of the Call article--the frame used in all Tax Foundation press releases--makes the piece downright misleading. Take the lede's reference to California counties and their lower property tax bills. That's narrowly true, but only because California schools are funded through the state government to a much greater degree than is typical in Pennsylvania. If you included California's income tax--which generates the revenue for that school funding--the California tax burden is quite a bit higher.

You need to wade through 19 paragraphs to get the figures for the two counties that we normally consider the Lehigh Valley--$2844 in Northampton and $2592 in Lehigh. These figures are far, far less than many New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut counties. Yes, Northampton and Lehigh are relatively high for Pennsylvania--but then so are the counties' income and home values. The relevant comparisons are millage rates and assessment practices.

And then there's the timing: There's little doubt that the Tax Foundation pumped versions of this story nationwide to change the dynamic in the upcoming midterm elections, to help the Republican "tax relief" refrain. According to another Lexis search, the group normally releases their property-tax analysis at the end of the year, in late December or early January. Not this year.

Write to the Morning Call to object to the biased coverage.


Ronald said...

I think you might be a bit paranoid. Those property tax figures are straight from the Census Bureau's new American Community Survey, which was released last week. So the timing of the data release was determined by Census. It seems unlikely that Census is a "right-wing" controlled group, who timed the release to help Republicans.

Might make more sense to stick to arguments about ideas and facts, rather than ad hominum attacks on people's credibility. You'll note the TF is a think tank that involves both Democrats and Republicans in its programs:

Bernie O'Hare said...

Jeff, good job here. Actually the LV is Lehigh and Northampton County. If we look at those two counties, there is no story.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it makes sense to call a group that opposes "gas tax holidays" -- that is, opposes a tax cut beloved by all Republicans -- "anti-tax" (

I don't see anywhere in their press release that calls for "tax cuts."

Anonymous said...

Pure stupidity on this post. Ronald is correct. All that was done was collecting of tax data from Census that was newly released, just like the liberal groups on the left like CBPP put forth a report when new Census income data was released back in August.

Census data isn't politically timed as they release the American Community Survey every fall.

Also, in the press release linked, the Tax Foundation said nothing about property taxes being too high or too small.