a debriefing from life in missouri

(or, for being a reddish-type part of the country, this state really knows how to extract/extort money out of its residents!)

I should make one thing clear right off the bat: I very much enjoyed living in Missouri for the past five years. Given the right set of circumstances, we’d still be there and, if the right set of circumstances were to arise in the future, we would be open to returning to Kansas City or Mecca.

That said, I must air my grievances with the Show-Me the Money State.

Taxes are a reality. I get this. I’m not naive to the realities of needing to subsidize government’s myriad roles and responsibilities nor am I complaining about the largesse of many state governments (to mention nothing of the feds, though that conversation would dovetail nicely with this one. I’ll spare us all that.) The two forms of taxation that left me floored–and my wallet emptied–dealt with vehicles.

I don’t know what vehicle taxation is like in most states, but here in Wisconsin, the governmental cost of owning a vehicle is included in the title and registration, personal licensure and in the annual plate renewal. Sales tax on a vehicle purchased is paid at the point of transaction, while sales tax on private party transactions are paid via title transfer. In other words, it’s all upfront, and plate tabs cost a little more per year. It can be tough on the wallet, but nothing terribly unreasonable.

I registered our vehicles in Missouri back in the summer of 2009, and thought to myself the cost to be quite cheap. Cool deal! We moved mid-year, things were good. Fast forward to late summer 2010, when we needed to get a new car. I traded in our old car for a new one, made what I thought was a good and fair deal and we were on our way.

Two months later, I got a knock on our door. The postman hand delivered registered mail from the state. I opened it, and was shocked to see that we owed a not insignficant amount of money in sales tax on the vehicle we bought and, if we didn’t pay by date, they’d repossess the car!

After the exploding Ron Burgundy eyes subsided, I drove to the dealership to speak with the business manager who drafted the terms of the sale, who proceeded to inform me–after the fact–that sales taxes were to be paid separately at a branch of the DMV, whereupon I informed him he never told us that. His reply was essentially a shrug of the shoulders and conceded that he thought we knew that. Never mind the legality of the matter, that dealership not only concealed information related to the sale, but ended up ripping us off on our trade to boot.

In the Show-Me the Money State, unless you specifically request to have the amount of sales tax lumped into the sale of the vehicle, they won’t. The unassailable analogy I used to the business manager and anyone else who would listen is that such a practice is akin to going to McDonald’s, purchasing a Big Mac value meal for $4.99, and the customer being under the force of personal obligation to go to a separate state government office to pay the roughly $.40 in sales tax, tax that would otherwise have been rightly garnished at the point of sale.

I asked anyone who would listen if that made any sense. No one said yes.

I sucked it up and paid out, but learned a valuable, if not tautological, lesson: car salespeople are slimy and unscrupulous human beings.

Nary a few months later, I was then surprised to see another invoice from government in the mail, this time from Jackson County, informing us that we owed about $400 in personal property tax on the vehicles we registered the summer prior. It’s not enough to get socked when you buy a vehicle, but one must to pay an impossible-to-decipher percentage conceived in the bowels of generally accepted accounting hell every single year.

You might not live in a nice house, but if you own a nice car, they will annually kick you. Pay by December 31.

Pay by December 31! That’s right, in the Show-Me the Money State, they’ll take what they can get off your cars, even if it means siphoning off hundreds of dollars per resident that could have otherwise have been spent in the busiest shopping season of the year, during the coldest months of the year. So one must choose whether to sacrifice Christmas**, the utility bill or to end up owing even more scratch and running the risk of not being able to renew one’s plates in the next renewal period.

[** feel free to replace ‘Christmas’ with whatever holiday you prefer]

It is here where I mention that much of Missouri’s constituency is comprised by conservatives, libertarians and centrist Reagan Democrats; people who typically are averse to paying out tons of money to government and its varied machinations, people with whom I am entirely sympathetic. Yet no one seems to care that this would constitute [ZOMG!!1!! BLATANT GOVERNMENT OVERREACH!!!!11!!!!11, to borrow from any number of pundits] in any other scenario because they’ve been completely Stockholm syndromed into complacency and acceptance. In what is a bit of a paradigm shift, the state’s Supreme Court did strike down the obvious double taxation of real estate a few years ago, but thus far has apparently failed to have been made aware of the ramifications of its decision-making on the real culprit of personal property.

It doesn’t take an economist or even that much creativity to point out that both these scenarios both hit the working and middle classes the hardest, and there are better solutions for government to generate revenue. One would be to, um, make dealers engage in truth-in-pricing. The idea that a DMV office–for the record, MODoT privatized most of its offices, and they are by far the best DMVs in the history of mankind both in terms of efficiency and courtesy–should be the default option to pay sales tax is sheer idiocy.

The other is to scrap annual personal property tax in favor of an escalated sales tax on holiday retail, perhaps a .5% increase from November 1 to December 24. (I only put it at that level because I recognize how much counties are reliant on these annual forms of usury. Admittedly, that’s a steep increase.) Not only does this notion put hundreds of dollars back in pockets, but also encourages people to not drive that old ’86 Tempo further into the ground while generating revenue on things people are already buying. And, if the marketplace chooses to push back holiday spending before the November kick-in, all the better: they’re still collecting.

Regardless of how much I loved living in Missouri, the fact is that the public entities there suck the capital life out of their residents in a most pernicious and parasitic way, and the only people who seem to care are those who have left or are on their way out. In this respect, this reddish state is no different from blue states like California or Illinois, which is to say that the same institutional and systemic issues are pervasive throughout the country.

Some are just more straightforward about it than others.


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