What is a “Fair Share” of Taxes?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Governor Jerry Brown earnestly wishes leaders of the business community to join a broad based coalition to support his proposed tax increase initiative. However, he undercuts his appeal for business support by implying in his measure that well-off business leaders are shirking their responsibilities by not currently paying their “fair share” of taxes.

Section 2(d) of the governor’s proposed tax law states: “With working families struggling while the wealthiest among us enjoy record income growth, it is only right to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share.”

The governor is asking business to support his measure at the same time casting business leaders as cheaters – not paying their “fair share.” Not only is that poor salesmanship, it belies the facts that top-end taxpayers carry the heaviest load in funding government.


As of the 2009 tax year, the top 3.8% of taxpayers, a little more than half-a million taxpayers out of 14.5 million state taxpayers, pay 54.5% of the income taxes. Most of these taxpayers would be subject to the governor’s proposed tax rate change. Included in that group is the nearly 34,000 taxpayers with a Gross Adjusted Income of $1 million or more, that is .2% of all California taxpayers. They pay 24.2% of all the states’ income tax.

How does one define “fair share?” If 54.5% of the income tax total is not a “fair share” collected from less than four-percent of the taxpayers to carry, what is a “fair share”? 60%? 75%? Higher?

Some contend a truly fair tax system is one in which each taxpayer pays the same percentage of their income to the state. Others point out that in the current political environment the phrase “fair share” means whatever those who pay income taxes at less than a proposed increased tax rate say it is.

Determining “fair share” is an elusive prospect. High-income taxpayers are the foundation of the state’s finances. As proven in the past, when the wealthy are doing well, income tax collection is high and the state treasury is bursting at the seams.

California already has one of the highest top income tax rates in the country as well as one of the most highly progressive tax structures. Small businesses are often considered wealthy by California tax definitions. Sole proprietorships paid about 23% of all personal income tax liability in 2008.

As the Tax Foundation reported: “Since most small businesses are S Corporations, partnerships, or sole proprietorships, they pay their business taxes at the rates for individuals. That makes California’s taxes on small businesses some of the most burdensome in the nation.”

In trying to get voters to support his measure while attempting to broaden his coalition at the same time, the governor has created a rhetorical problem that could become a political one. Accusing potential allies of not paying their “fair share” sounds like the taxpayers who are carrying a large tax burden are somehow cheating their fellow citizens.

No one likes to contribute to a campaign that belittles him or her and tries to make him or her out to be a bad guy.

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