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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

A day to think about those who pay their taxes — and those who avoid it

Kelly Sikkema

Today is Tax Day. I wanted to say that right out front in case you need to jump up from the breakfast table and go find that shoebox full of receipts. If that’s you, I don’t envy the rest of your day.

Millions of Americans turn in their 1040s at the last possible minute, not just because we’re a nation full of procrastinators, but because so many of us hate giving a dollar to the government.

I’m not especially fond of it, either. But I understand what the purposes of taxes are. They’re not just to give the government enough money to do everything from building highways to defending our country. Taxes are the most tangible symbol of the idea that we’re all in this together.

Or at least we’re supposed to be.

We talk all the time about how fragmented America feels — racially, culturally, generationally, politically, all of those a-l-l-y words. A lot of that fragmentation stems from the notion of unfairness, that one side has cheated the other. That definitely feels true financially. And I think it starts with the fact that some of our country’s richest people and corporations routinely find ways to avoid paying taxes.

Some of you might remember Leona Helmsley, the infamous hotel magnate of the 1980s who did prison time for tax evasion and fraud. One of her housekeepers testified that Helmsley once said, “Only the little people pay taxes.”

A lot of the big people sure don’t.

A report last year from a progressive think tank showed that 55 of the country’s biggest corporations paid no federal income tax in 2020. One of those companies was our own Duke Energy. They didn’t do anything illegal — they just took advantage of tax breaks and lower corporate rates.

And a ProPublica report last year said that many of America’s richest people — including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Elon Musk of Tesla, currently the two richest people in the world — had years where they didn’t pay a dime of federal income tax.

Most of us are just happy to have some of the money we paid in to come back as a refund. But it’s pretty clear what might happen if all of us got our income tax burden wiped clean. Let’s just say there wouldn’t be a post office where you could drop off your return.

Our tax system is set up in a way where there are tremendous incentives to beat the government out of its tax money. It’s also a system so complicated that only people who have a lot of money already can take full advantage of it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us — even if we’re doing relatively fine — start to feel like the “little people” Leona Helmsley talked about.

And on the day when we’re most reminded about all of this, you can almost hear the mortar holding this country together develop one more little crack.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.