Poleaxed by Poll Tax?

THE Conservatives' loss last week of what had been a safe parliamentary seat reinforces the perception that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is on the skids. Voting in the Mid-Staffordshire by-election reflected in part widespread public unhappiness over the government's April 1 introduction of a ``community charge,'' better known as a poll tax. The tax, a flat-rate charge on each resident (with rebates for the poor and elderly), replaces property taxes, or ``rates,'' as a means of funding local services.

Renters and others who own no property, and thus paid no local taxes, suddenly will find themselves paying several hundred pounds a year for services they'd taken for granted. (The charge, which is set by local councils, will vary from community to community, depending on population and local spending plans.) Lord Foxhunt and Squire Richsoil, meanwhile, will pay only the same local tax as the butcher.

Naturally there's been a great hue and cry about fairness.

The Thatcher government and likeminded analysts say the poll tax is more fair than rates, because it requires all local residents to pay equally for the government services they consume. ``People, not houses, use services,'' they note. Moreover, leaving aside Lord Foxhunt and Squire Richsoil (who pay sizable income taxes), Mr. Thatchedroof - a bank teller - has no more ``ability to pay'' local taxes than does the average renter. And the rebates, supporters say, ease the burden for the most needy.

The government also praises the community charge as a means of bringing accountability to local governments - many of which are dominated by what are, in Tory eyes, irresponsibly free-spending Labour Party members. The poll tax, it's asserted, will impel voters to rein in such officials.

But critics counter that Thatcher's cuts in income-tax rates already gave the rich a tax break, and that the poll tax compounds the system's regressive inequity. They add that the tax will be costly to collect.

The poll-tax controversy dramatizes issues that are gaining prominence in the United States: Should people pay directly for their government services - as President Bush has implied in his recent highway-funding proposals - or do there continue to be valid political, economic, and social reasons for disguising some of the costs of government services, and for shifting government costs from some groups to others?

As for Mrs. Thatcher's political future: She doesn't have to run again for two years. That's a long time for a proven political survivor to regain her footing. Don't look for her to resign - or be pushed out - anytime soon.

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