COLUMN ONE : New Ideas on Tapping a Taxpayer : To reduce voter backlash, governments are using nickel-and-dime fees to fill public coffers. Some of the proposals--such as a levy on animal psychiatric services--border on the bizarre.
Still confused about what is fiscally if not gastronomically correct under California’s snack tax? Then you can bet your bear claws that munchers in suburban Washington are having fits sorting out their new debit on doughnuts.
It works something like this: Trying to compensate for a $10-million cut in state aid, Arlington County, Va., recently slapped a tax on the sale of non-home-cooked meals, including those in-flight concoctions prepared for passengers leaving National Airport.
The problem facing diners and officials alike is trying to figure out what constitutes a meal for tax purposes. A sit-down dinner in a fancy restaurant or cafe is fairly cut and dried, as is Chinese takeout or the taco-to-go drive-thru.
But, what in the name of breakfast buns do you do about takeout doughnuts? The Arlington elders got together and came up with a Solomon-like solution.
If you buy a dozen or so, then you are likely to pass them around the office or nosh sparingly over time, the reasoning goes. So that is not considered a meal and is exempt from the 4% levy. If, however, you buy only two or three doughnuts, and, perhaps, a cup of coffee, then you are probably a glutton and likely to eat them all at one sitting. So that purchase is a meal and is subject to the tax.
Go figure. Which is exactly what public officials from the spacious rotundas of state capitols to the grimy back rooms of mosquito abatement districts are doing these days as they try to rationalize new and innovative ways to dip into the pocketbooks of voters without getting them too grouchy come Election Day.
“In order to avoid increases in general taxes, policy-makers are looking behind every rock for a new revenue source that can be tapped,” observed James Nowlan, head of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, where the number of state taxes has risen from 28 to 55 in a little more than a decade. “That’s why we’re getting all these arcane taxes.”
That is putting it mildly. Strapped for cash, hamstrung by tax limitation straitjackets and wary of political repercussions, authorities increasingly are resorting to unorthodox nickel-and-dime approaches to filling public coffers. Call them surcharges, call them user fees, call them license fees, call them whatever you like, some seem ingenious while others border on the wacky. You be the judge.
North Carolina has tacked on a 6% levy to cigarettes, athlete’s foot powder or anything else that convicts buy at their prison concession stands. Meanwhile, in Washtenaw County, Mich., west of Detroit, ex-convicts are now hit with a $30 fee for monthly visits to their probation officers--visits that, by the way, aren’t optional. The fees bring in about $200,000 annually to help defray the salaries of the officers.
” . . . I suppose they’re not too happy about it,” said Gerald Fischer, the county finance director. “But they’re always in danger of being sent back to jail if they don’t pay it. So they do.”
Elsewhere, Arkansas now charges motorists $1.50 every time they purchase a new tire to help offset the eventual costs of disposing of them. Similarly, the state adds a $10 environmental fee to the price of a new car or truck battery unless the buyer trades in his used, potentially leaky one.
In Minnesota, the Legislature this year seriously considered a smorgasbord of what were dubbed “yuppie” taxes. They included proposed levies on caviar, animal psychiatric services, interior design, limousine and telephone beeper rentals, elective cosmetic surgery, horse boarding and dog and cat kenneling. Only the beeper and kennel taxes were passed. They are expected to bring in $1 million in new revenue.
And in Port Hueneme, Calif., the City Council last month unanimously approved what critics derided as a “view tax"--special assessments on home owners who live near the beach. The charges, to help pay for beach upkeep, are to be assessed on a sliding scale ranging from $66 to $184 a year, depending on how close the home is to the beach and the quality of the view.
To be sure, when a city council, county board or state legislature finds its treasury drowning in red ink--as California did this year with its projected $14.3-billion deficit--penny ante fiscal dipsy doodles won’t do the trick. Lawmakers have to take their political chances with broad-based big ticket hikes such as those in sales, income or property taxes.
So far this year, 16 states have raised rates on their personal income tax levies alone, up from 11 in 1990, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Toting up all varieties of increases at the state level, the Denver-based organization estimated that legislatures across the country have raised taxes by $15 billion to $18 billion in 1991, a single-year record.
At the same time, however, governmental bodies are learning to plug more modest gaps with what are known in the trade as “miscellaneous” taxes. At the state level, 20 legislatures resorted to off-the-mainstream revenue enhancement schemes in 1991, up from only 10 a year ago, according to the Denver group.
Raising so called sin taxes, those on cigarettes, liquor and other vices, is a tried and true way of raising money in many jurisdictions. Lotteries and legalized forms of gambling have also flourished in recent years.
But, these days, governments are getting ever more clever about extracting money. Wichita, Kan., now is considering a bomb disposal fee when the bomb squad has to go out to, for example, a university or industry laboratory to remove chemicals that have become dangerously unstable. Authorities used to do such things for free.
Creative taxing can also include anything from hiking marriage license fees, as Florida did to bankroll domestic violence programs, to a New Orleans proposal to add a $4- to $5-a-tail user fee on Fido or Fifi, above and beyond the normal cost of a pet license, to help pay for anti-cruelty programs. Howls of protest from dog and cat owners scuttled that idea, however.
If there is a common denominator in all this, experts say, it is that politicians sense less voter backlash when new taxes or fees hit narrowly defined consumer targets and the proceeds are dedicated for specific ends.
“No one wants to see their taxes increased, but the voters seem to accept individual increases if the proceeds from those taxes are being used for things that they feel are worthwhile,” said Jeffrey Esser, executive director of the Government Finance Officers Assn., a professional association based in Chicago.
“They’ve been less resistant if initiatives are spelled out to them and they know a portion of a sales tax increase, for example, was to be used only to support infrastructure or education.”
So, for instance, the small Portland suburb of Tualatin, Ore., has raised about $280,000 for street paving since it enacted an unusual road utility fee last year. In essence, families, businesses--even churches--are hit with levies based on the number of automobile trips they are likely to generate per day as calculated on a schedule devised by the Institute of Traffic Engineers. Theoretically, the more packed the pews, the bigger the tax. Portland itself is considering adopting the idea to bolster its street lighting fund.
From the tax administrator’s standpoint, the scattershot approach to taxing can be inefficient. It sometimes costs nearly as much to collect the revenue as there is revenue to collect. If that approach strikes the average taxpayer as somewhat foolish, then, taxpayer, assess thyself.
In ‘Dribs and Drabs’
According to municipal finance expert Irene Rubin, the trend has come about partly because people find it less painful to be taxed in little “dribs and drabs” that they rarely tote up rather than in one big chunk--even if it costs them in the long run.
Bumping the sales, property or income tax up a notch or two might actually be cheaper for the average taxpayer than forking over money for a proliferation of new or increased fees and other less typical taxes, argued Rubin, a professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University.
“You’re oftentimes paying more,” she explained. " . . . But people prefer it the way they can’t see it. There’s a psychological element to it.”
Analysts say there is no single tax du jour that is flowering through the halls of governments. Still, at the local level, one notion that has caught on big is “tax exporting,” in essence, figuring out a way to hit up outsiders. Said Rubin: “Especially popular are hotel-motel taxes because they tax somebody who only comes and stays for a few days and then goes and never gets to vote.”
Conventioneers and other visitors to Chicago are largely paying for a new baseball stadium for the White Sox. It was financed with a hotel-motel tax. In the same vein, Minnesota just added a $7.50 surcharge on rental car contracts.
The levy on meals in Arlington County, Va., also belongs to the exporting genre. Tony Gardner, the county manager, said that as much as 80% of the revenue from the tax is expected to be paid by non-residents, primarily tourists visiting the nation’s capital and, indirectly, passengers leaving National Airport who get meals prepared at flight service kitchens in the county.
“This allowed us to spread the burden of funding across the non-resident population, which is typically a population that doesn’t pay for itself in terms of the services it consumes,” Gardner reasoned.
Another popular--from the tax collector’s standpoint, at least--idea is extending sales taxes to include items and services that previously had escaped taxation. California’s snack tax was a good example, one followed by Maine and Maryland.
The Denver suburb of Lakewood now taxes things such as ski equipment rentals, linen services and additional warranties on housewares and electronics that a shopper can purchase above and beyond the manufacturer’s warranty. In Pennsylvania, a new state law stretches the 6% sales tax for the first time to include long-distance phone calls, storage services, lawn care services, charges for cable television premium channels such as HBO and a range of business-related services such as lobbying costs, credit reports, debt collections and data processing.
The Pennsylvania law also expands the sales tax to include household paper and cleaning products, except for toilet paper, disposable diapers and feminine hygiene wares. The exemptions may have been included with an eye to what happened last year in New Jersey, when a $2.8-billion revenue package signed into law by Democratic Gov. James J. Florio included bathroom tissue. Critics adopted toilet paper as the symbol of their protest and, by the thousands, tossed rolls of it at the state Capitol. In the end, lawmakers rescinded the toilet paper levy.
With some trepidation, lest public servants use it as a how-to manual for new ways to squeeze their constituents, here is a guide to other current creative taxing schemes:
* Washington state raised $181,000 last year by adding a $15 fee to the price of any new wood stove. The money pays for a public education program on the pollution hazards of wood smoke.
The stove fee is part of a widening group of environmentally related initiatives that are designed not only to raise revenue but also to curb pollution. Arkansas’ tire and battery taxes fall into that category. Several other states, including California, have adopted versions of tire and battery disposal fees.
In Oregon, state lawmakers added 1.1 cents a gallon to the gasoline tax specifically to raise $15 million annually for a fund to assist service station operators in identifying and replacing rusty underground storage tanks.
Likewise, Florida, reasoning that even the most well-intentioned of nature lovers trample and degrade state wilderness areas when they visit, recently considered taxing the sale of binoculars and field guides to raise money for preservation programs. However, that idea died.
* Montana and Tennessee have nursing home user fees based on the numbers of beds filled by Medicaid recipients, and Tennessee imposes a similar charge on hospitals also. Meanwhile, Arkansas now imposes a tax on doctors, hospitals and nursing homes that are reimbursed for Medicaid and Medicare services with federal and state money. Although the plans and charges differ and are all highly technical, in each case the goal is to inflate the size of state Medicaid and Medicare accounts, which are then used to claim more federal matching funds.
* North Carolina tightened a sales tax exemption to require that juice drinks be 100% natural to qualify. Previously, a drink could contain as little as 35% natural juice and still be exempt from taxes. The state expects the change to net an extra $1.8 million over the next four years.
* In what might be viewed as evidence of the trickle-down theory of taxation, New Mexico, which will soon trim $20 million in distributions to its cities and counties, imposed a 5% gross receipts tax on cities and counties that is expected to raise at least $10 million. Local officials are outraged at having to give a slice of their license and service revenues back to the state, especially because the state is cutting back on its aid to them.
“It’s ironic,” said Bill Fulginiti, executive director of the New Mexico Municipal League. “They ask us to go fix problems and then they tax the fees that we collect to fix the problems.”
* Marksville, La., just replaced its innovative, but hard to enforce, toilet tax with a more commonplace sewer user fee. Until last December, the city of 6,500 had charged homeowners $3 a month for every toilet they owned. Apparently not satisfied that the town’s potty count was up to snuff, Mayor Richard Michel caused a minor furor a few years ago when he announced plans to conduct a house-to-house toilet census, giving new meaning to the term “head count.” Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the city decided to flush the tax away.
* On New York’s Long Island, the Nassau County Police Department has a permit fee for burglar and fire alarms. The charge, $35 for residential systems and $50 for commercial, is part of a system of fines, permit revocations and even criminal sanctions designed to cut down on the number of false alarms while helping to defray the costs of answering them. Officials say more than 99% of the 110,000 alarm calls that came in last year were false ones.
“We locked up a woman a couple years ago,” Lt. Willard Krausch, a department spokesman, explained. “She had some people over and had a new alarm system and was bragging about how fast the cops respond. When the cops drove up, everybody was standing outside with their stop watches.”
Times researchers Doug Conner in Seattle, Lianne Hart in Houston, Ann Rovin in Denver, Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Anna Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.