*I should note before I start that when I refer to "Tea Partiers" I'm not referring to people like Dick Armey or the Kochs who run or fund Tea Party organizations. I'm talking more about the rank-and-file guys and gals who might bitch about paying their taxes but who generally don't spend their weekends discussing "Atlas Shrugged" or "The Road to Serfdom" in book clubs. In other words, I think this campaign could be useful to persuade the persuadable. Now that I've thrown that disclaimer out there...
So the Denver Post has done us an extremely useful service today by highlighting just one of many ways that rich people in the United States get away with paying practically zero taxes. I think this could be useful because many of the rich people featured in the story happen to be Hollywood celebrities, who are often the bane of our conservative brethren on a great many issues. Let's take a look:
Actors, captains of industry, an Ivy League astrologer, sports figures, politicians, energy giants, schoolteachers from Pasadena, Calif. All these are also considered farmers or ranchers for tax purposes in Colorado. They have secured low property taxes through agricultural designations on land they own even though they personally have little or nothing to do with producing food — the reason state legislators originally created a low property-tax rate for the agriculture sector.
In some cases, the properties where they have second, third or fourth homes were traditional working ranches before they were sold to the wealthy and became what, in real-estate lingo, are termed "gentleman ranches" or "recreational ranches."
You can see where this is going, can't you? And once you get into the gory details, things get really ugly:
Actor Tom Cruise owns five parcels of land on a scenic mesa northwest of Telluride that has become an enclave of high-end vacation homes. Sheep graze around the mansions for brief periods each year, according to the assessor's office. Cruise pays just more than $400 in taxes for 248 acres for which he paid nearly $18 million between 1994 and 2002. He pays $11,380 in residential property taxes for the land where his $9.7 million home is located.
Yes, this is how poorly our tax systems across the country are designed: Tom Bleeping Cruise can get away with paying $400 a year in taxes for property that's worth around $18 million, all because he occasionally allows sheep to walk through it.
Want another ugly detail? Check out this one:
David Tresemer, an astrologer and Harvard-educated psychologist, owns 191 acres and four structures that are listed as farm buildings or residences in the foothills west of Boulder where he operates the StarHouse. It is advertised as a spiritual and cultural space for celebrations of the seasons, the lunar cycles and rituals from ancient and indigenous cultures.
He pays $11.48 in taxes for 38 of the vacant acres and $3,699 for the remainder of the land with the buildings.
OK, even if Ma and Pa Tea Party are still Tom Cruise fans, there ain't no way they're happy that a Harvard-educated astrologer is paying just over $11 in taxes for 38 vacant acres of land. And remember, these are only two examples that demonstrate how the rich and their accountants have completely gamed the tax code to their advantage. A more thorough audit of other rich people in other states would no doubt unveil countless other horrors.
Hey, have you got time for another one? Sure you do:
Dick Ebersol and Susan Saint James own a 35-acre lot in the upscale West Meadows subdivision near Telluride. They purchased the land for $1.8 million in 1996 and pay $123 in property taxes on it annually because there is hay on it. They also own an $11 million home in the Mountain Village.
Universal Faithists of Kosmon, which believes in a new-age bible purportedly channeled by a clairvoyant dentist in the late 1800s, purchased 40 acres of agricultural ground in Mesa County last summer. The land on the Grand Mesa includes a ranch house, so the tax is $1,503. The Faithists teach that human beings are going to evolve into the Kosmon Era, a time of worldwide peace and joy.
You get the idea. This is all happening as schools throughout Colorado are dramatically cutting spending and laying off teachers, and as one Colorado town dealt with its budget crunch by shutting off one-third of its streetlights.
This sort of stuff is pretty important. While Americans may grumble a lot about "big gubmint," they tend to like things such as street lamps and a functioning public education system. If we can no longer afford these things because the tax code thinks Tom Cruise is a cattle herder, then something is drastically wrong with the way we collect taxes in this country.