Trash Tax

I’m a big believer in the “user fee” concept of funding governmental services.  The underlying notion is simple:  many governmental services benefit us all, but some benefit only the specific users of the service — so why not have them bear the lion’s share of the cost of providing that service?  If a municipal government operates an airport, for example, it seems eminently fair to fund its construction and operations through taxes and charges to the passengers who fly through the airport and the airlines, rental car companies, and other who profit by doing business at the airport.

I think governmental entities also should consider expanding the “user fee” concept to look not only at who benefits from government services, but also at who causes the need for the government service in the first place.  I’m thinking specifically about the trash that you find at the parks, and on the streets and sidewalks, of Columbus and other American cities.  At some point, for example, somebody from some governmental entity comes to Schiller Park, empties the refuse cans, and picks up the random bits of trash to be found on the park lawns and sidewalks.

As a dedicated litter fighter who tries to pick up and throw away the random trash found at Schiller, I know first hand that much of the contents of the trash cans, and virtually all of the litter on the lawns and sidewalks, is fast food debris — coffee cups and lids, cheap styrofoam containers, straws, straw wrappers, sandwich wrappers, napkins, and carryout bags.  It’s virtually inevitable that at least some portion of fast food carryout will end up as litter, and as you move from the area around the McDonald’s to the area around the Starbucks you see the change in the litter patterns that reflects that.

So why not impose a targeted “trash tax” on fast food restaurants that helps to defray the cost of picking up the litter that those businesses generate?  It would be different from any fees paid for maintaining dumpsters at the fast food restaurant that get emptied from time to time, and would instead focus on the cost of the consequences of fast food carryout from a neighborhood trash standpoint.  And if fast food restaurants wanted to pass on the cost by charging carryout customers a bit more, I’d be fine with that, too.

Litter is a curse that can ruin enjoyment of parks and neighborhoods.  It seems eminently fair to require the businesses that cause the litter problem to pay for addressing it.

Tax Torn

Well, it’s Tax Day — April 15, the due date for most federal and state income tax filings.  The butt of jokes by comedians for decades.  The annual source of angst for millions of American taxpayers.  A rallying cry for conservative anti-taxers ever since the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 and allowed the federal income tax in the first place.

My feelings about Tax Day are decidedly ambivalent.  I recognize that taxes are the price we pay for living in a free society, and I pay them willingly.  A modern military with modern weaponry, a welfare state system that tries to help the poor and elderly, and a government that shoulders far-reaching tasks like disease control or preventing alien species from invading the Great Lakes can’t be funded by the system of duties and tariffs that supported a much more limited government during the colonial era.  I also think it’s ridiculous for people like Ted Cruz to talk about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.  If you accept that taxes must be paid, as I do, there must be an entity that collects the tax.

At the same time, it’s hard for me to feel warm and fuzzy about our tax system or the IRS.  Last night Kish and I watched the latest Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and it tried to make viewers feel sorry for the IRS, because IRS jobs are boring, the Internal Revenue Code is constantly being changed by Congress, and IRS funding has been cut.  Good luck with that effort!  The IRS may be necessary, but don’t expect me to give it a hug, okay?  And when I sign my forms and send in my payments, don’t think I’m a nut if I wonder about the presence of unfairness in our tax code and abuse and favoritism in the highly political process by which tax exemptions are determined and tax rates are imposed.

Every year, as I look at the forms and the complicated instructions, I wonder if there isn’t a simpler, fairer way to do it.  Say what you will about the sales tax, but it’s a straightforward percentage that anybody can calculate, and it targets consumption rather than work.  If you want to soak the idle rich, wouldn’t a tax when they buy ridiculously appointed $200,000 SUVs be a good idea?  And user fees that are triggered when a specific federal service is used — say, for use of ports and customs, for airline security, or for drug or vehicle testing to ensure compliance with safety standards — also seems fair.  Couple that with an income tax and withholding system that involves fewer exemptions, exclusions, deductions, tax rate levels, and schedules, and maybe you’ve got a workable system that won’t cause so many Americans to take the IRS’s name in vain come every April 15.

Doubling The Airline “Security Fee”

Last week the “security fee” the federal government charges to airline passengers more than doubled, from $2.50 per passenger to $5.60 per passenger.  The increased fee was part of a budget agreement that Congress and the Obama Administration worked out last year.

IMG_2260I don’t have a problem with the concept of “user fees,” and I view the “security fee” as falling within that category.  I think user fees are a fair way of paying for services that some Americans use, but not others.  Every American needs our military, for example, but not everyone needs the blue-shirted Transportation Security Administration folks who remind us to take off our belts, look at our drivers licenses, and wave us through scanners.  Why should people who don’t regularly fly on airplanes pay for services that are used only by regular air travelers like me?  And with all of the nickel-and-diming that goes on with air travel these days, from baggage fees to food fees to other obscure charges, who’s going to notice an extra $3.10?

The problem I have is that the money raised won’t be used entirely for the TSA, or apparently for services that are directly related to air travel security.  I recognize that the federal government is one huge bucket, and it’s hard to precisely account for specific payments, but if you really want to implement a “user fee,” the proceeds should go solely for the service being used.  Otherwise, you’re just using the fee as a thinly disguised tax to raise general revenue, and you’re targeting just one group for the tax hit.  That’s not equitable, and it’s destructive of the fairness principle that make user fees a sensible approach in the first place.