04/18/2011 12:31 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2011

The Taxing Issue of Shared Responsibility

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said taxes are the dues we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society. Although nobody likes paying taxes, my hunch is the vast majority of Americans agree. Every April, they file their returns and then go about their business. They may glance at what their employers withheld, but they don't really think too much about taxes again until those new W-2s arrive in the mail the following January.

This year, however, I sense that something different is happening. Many of us share a growing concern that the system is out of whack. Too often, it seems as though those who have the least are asked to sacrifice the most, and those who have the most get more.

We are still recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression. And while most Americans did not cause this recession, they're living with its effects: high rates of foreclosure, a weakened job market, the loss of revenues. Shared responsibility and shared sacrifice have become the clarion calls.

Americans understand that, and most of us are willing to step up to the plate and do our fair share of sacrificing. But for those surviving paycheck to paycheck, any increase in food or gas prices or health insurance payments, or a salary freeze, is a real sacrifice.

We also know that our fiscal challenges are real. But in too many states, governors have decided to play politics-as-usual rather than rolling up their sleeves and finding real solutions.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed cutting corporate taxes by $1.8 billion, or 86 percent. At the same time, he's cutting funding for public education. The one tax loophole he wants to close isn't for corporations: It's a tax break for the working poor. And in doing so, he will push 14,000 Michigan kids into poverty.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a total of $200 million in tax cuts, including major benefits for his wealthiest supporters. At the same time, he is calling for $500 million in Medicaid cuts and $1.7 billion in public education cuts. Custodians at the University of Wisconsin will receive a 16 percent pay cut as a result.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed up to $400 million in business tax breaks. At the same time, he wants to cut education by $1.2 billion. At a time when college access and affordability have never been more important, Corbett's plan calls for an incredible 50 percent cut in state aid to higher education.

And in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has a budget that leaves education 6 percent below where it was in 2008. He vetoed an extension of the state's tax on millionaires and called for $2.5 billion in new tax cuts, much of them geared toward large corporations and the wealthiest citizens. Christie calls this the "new normal." A judge has called it an unconstitutional violation of the right of children to an adequate education.

Meanwhile in Washington, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget plan would get about two-thirds of its proposed $4 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years by slashing Medicaid, Pell Grants, food stamps and low-income housing -- programs that serve people who need them the most -- all so he can give a trillion-dollar tax break to millionaires and billionaires.

Even these egregious examples do not tell the whole story. On average, the richest 1 percent of Americans pay 6.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The middle class and the working poor pay more than 9 percent. Many profitable Fortune 500 companies pay no state taxes. Several weeks ago, we all read with amazement that General Electric made $5.1 billion in profits in its U.S. operations last year, but paid no federal taxes on those profits and even claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.

That's not shared sacrifice. It's just plain wrong to give more tax breaks to the people who pay the least, while seniors, students and everyone else trying to live the American dream see their schools and the services they rely on cut dramatically.

Warren Buffett put it best:

"We're going to have to get more [tax] money from somebody. The question is, do we get more money from the person that's going to serve me lunch today, or do we get it from me? I think we should get it from me. I have a lower tax rate, counting payroll taxes, than anybody in my office."

The success of our society depends largely on the amount of confidence its citizens have in it. The vast majority of Americans play by the rules. They go to work every day. They provide for their families. They pay their taxes.

And they expect others to do the same.

But too often, inequities in our tax system erode that confidence. That's why the American Federation of Teachers is proud to endorse's "Tax Day: Make Them Pay" campaign, a grassroots effort for economic justice and fairness.

As President Obama said last week, we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. But only through shared responsibility can we transform the American dream into a reality for all our citizens.