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The process whereby charges are imposed on individuals or property by the legislative branch of the federal government and by many state governments to raise funds for public purposes.
The theory that underlies taxation is that charges are imposed to support the government in exchange for the general advantages and protection afforded by the government to the taxpayer and his or her property. The existence of government is a necessity that cannot continue without financial means to pay its expenses; therefore, the government has the right to compel all citizens and property within its limits to share its costs. The state and federal governments both have the power to impose taxes upon their citizens.
Kinds of Taxes
The two basic kinds of taxes are excise taxes and property taxes.
Excise Tax An excise tax is directly imposed by the law-making body of a government on merchandise, products, or certain types of transactions, including carrying on a profession or business, obtaining a license, or transferring property. It is a fixed and absolute charge that does not depend upon the taxpayer's financial status or the value that the taxed property has to the taxpayer.
An estate tax is a tax that is placed on, and paid by, the estate of a decedent prior to the distribution of the property among the heirs in exchange for the privilege of transferring the property. Individuals who inherit property may be required to pay an inheritance tax on the value of the particular property received. Gift taxes are incurred by an individual who gives another a valuable gift.
Another type of excise tax is a sales tax, which is placed on certain goods and services. Precisely what goods and services are taxed is determined by the individual state legislatures. In some instances, a sales tax placed upon expensive items that are considered luxuries is known as a luxury tax.
A corporate tax is an excise tax imposed upon the privilege of conducting business in the corporate capacity, which provides certain advantages to individuals, such as limited liability. It is measured by the income of the corporation involved.
Other common examples of excise taxes are those imposed upon the processing of meat, tobacco, cheese, and sugar.
Property Tax A property tax takes the taxpayer's wealth into account, as represented by the taxpayer's income or the property he or she owns. Income Tax, for example, is a property tax that is assessed and levied upon the taxpayer's income; property taxes are imposed mainly on real property.
Direct and Indirect Taxes Taxes are also classified as direct and indirect. A direct tax is one that is assessed upon the property, business, or income of the individual who is to pay the tax. Conversely indirect taxes are taxes that are levied upon commodities before they reach the consumer who ultimately pays the taxes as part of the market price of the commodity. A common example of an indirect tax is a value-added tax, which is paid on the value added to the product at each stage of production, distribution, and sales.
The Constitution and laws passed by Congress have given the U.S. government authorization to collect various taxes. For example, duties are taxes imposed upon imports and can be either advalorem (a percentage of the value of the property) or specific (a fixed amount). An impost is another name for an import tax. Congress may not, however, tax exports.
The Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution gives Congress the power to impose a federal income tax. Congress has also enacted laws that allow the federal government to tax estates remaining after people die and gifts made while people are alive.
States possess the inherent power to levy both property and excise taxes. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states powers that have neither been granted to the United States nor proscribed to the states by the Constitution, implicitly acknowledges this fundamental right. A state may raise funds by taxation in aid of its own welfare, provided the tax does not constitute unjust discrimination among those who are to share the tax burden. Property taxes, for example, may properly be imposed on landowners within the jurisdiction. In addition, the state may levy income, gift, estate, and inheritance taxes upon its residents.
The question of whether states should be able to tax sales conducted over the Internet has generated increased interest as states scramble for additional funding in the wake of budget deficits. Technically, these transactions are taxable. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1992, however, stated that states can only require sellers to collect taxes if they have a physical presence in the same state as the consumer. The reason, said the Court in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 112 S. Ct. 1904, 119 L. Ed. 2d 91, is that the current system of 7,500 taxing jurisdictions across the country makes it too complicated for online retailers to collect sales taxes fairly and efficiently. In 1998 Congress imposed a three-year Moratorium against any Internet taxes; the moratorium was renewed for two years in 2001. Online businesses and consumers have supported these moratoria for the obvious reason that taxes would cost money and affect sales, as well as the less obvious reason that tracking Internet sales would violate individual privacy by generating records of who is purchasing what.
The National Governors Association (NGA) initiated the Streamlined Sales Tax Project (SSTP) in 2000 with the goal of adopting uniform tax rates among the states and thus making it easier for online retailers to collect taxes. NGA hopes to complete SSTP by the end of 2005.
Equality is a fundamental principle of taxation. The taxing power of the legislature must always be exercised in such a way that the burdens imposed by taxation are laid as equally as possible on all classes. The progressive tax, which imposes a higher rate of taxation upon individuals with large incomes than on those with small incomes, is an attempt to achieve this objective.
Equality in taxation is achieved when no higher rate in proportion to value is imposed on one individual or his or her property than on other people or property in similar circumstances. Equality does not mandate that the benefits that arise from taxation should be enjoyed by all the people in equal degree or that each individual should share in each particular benefit. For example, the fact that a Husband and Wife have no children or choose to send their children to private school does not signify that they are permitted to stop paying their share of school tax.
The principle of uniformity of taxation bears a close relation to the concept of equality because similar items are taxed equally only if the mode of assessment is the same or uniform.
A tax that is levied upon property must be in proportion or according to its value, ordinarily determined as its fair cash or fair market value. This requirement protects equality and uniformity of taxation by preventing Arbitrary or inconsistent methods of determining how much tax is due. This requirement applies only to property taxes, not to excise taxes.
Reid, John Phillip, 2003. Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority to Tax. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.