May 2003 #5
Taxpayers should beware the latest in legislative fashion
© by Barbara Anderson
The Salem News
Friday, May 30, 2003
This is a busy week on Beacon Hill, and the basic theme is "trends."
It's the Senate's turn to debate the state budget; the version proposed by its Ways & Means Committee contained some good things like selling the Hynes Convention Center, reorganizing the human services bureaucracy, and instituting some court reforms.
The trend we must note, however, is that of increasing fees — really taxes in disguise — which began with former governor Swift's proposal to tax self-paying nursing home beds, which was followed by the Legislature's tax on prescriptions. Then there was Governor Romney's plan to make hospitals and health insurance companies pay a new fee to care for the sick, charge higher tuition to some students to provide financial aid to others, and expand the bottle bill to include juice bottles.
We must especially deplore the proposed 2-cent increase in the gas tax which is being called an increase in the fee to clean up gas-station-generated hazardous waste, even though the money is going into the general fund.
The Senate Ways & Means Committee has proposed raising firearm fees, even while admitting that part of the money would go into the general fund, making it also a tax by definition. But the really big precedent for taxes parading as fees is a homeowner's insurance charge which would be earmarked for police, fire and emergency medical services that are presently covered by our property taxes.
If this passes it will be just the beginning of fees on car insurance to pay for the state police, fees on car repairs to fill potholes, and fees on milk to pay for dairy inspectors. We will bear our usual high tax burden, then pay a "fee" for our use of any government service.
We will pay fees per pound of air we breathe to pay for the privilege of living on the planet.
Fortunately, the court case that originally defined a fee, "Emerson College vs. the City of Boston," said that businesses could not be charged a fee to cover a service for which they already pay property taxes. The comparison of this to the Senate's new "first responder surcharge" should be obvious to the courts.
Speaking of fire services, I saw a fire station this week in Lynn with a sign that read: "Closed due to budget cuts." On the street right next to the station, a road crew was digging a hole and a city police officer was standing there watching it. There's a point to be made here somewhere.
But back to the Senate, and fees. I've been told that Senator Sue Tucker, D-Andover, and others will attempt to remove the "first responder surcharge/tax" from the Senate budget, and Governor Romney is considering a veto.
Meanwhile in the House, the hot trend issue is "saving us from ourselves," which began with seat belt law debates, became bans on smoking in private restaurants, and is now being discussed as taxes on fast foods. The real issue is the death of personal responsibility and our society's demand for someone else to blame when we are injured or get sick despite making dumb choices.
The subject this week is the proposed drunk driving "per se" law, and a primary enforcement seat belt law. It will be interesting to see if legislators use amendments to the former to get their priorities right. At the moment, Massachusetts is running an enthusiastic "Click it or Ticket" campaign to make adults buckle up, while letting drunk drivers continue to terrorize us despite numerous convictions.
I always wear a seat belt, but it isn't going to help me when the drunk hits my little Honda head-on at 90 mph. Some police officers insist that they never unbuckled a dead man, and maybe they personally have not, but it is impossible for me to believe that all policemen can say the same. You get hit by a giant truck, your car rolls over a cliff or explodes on impact into a wall, and you always survive because you're wearing a seat belt? I don't think so.
During debate, Rep. George Peterson, R-Grafton, argued that the problem isn't seat belts, the problem is accidents, and laws should focus on preventing these and punishing dangerous drivers.
I don't trust the Breathalyzer test — I once flunked it on a talk show after drinking a glass of grape juice — but it's not that hard to find the serious, repeat offenders and remove them from society. Though I suppose some senators' way of dealing with this issue would be to put a fee on sober drivers to pay for alcohol-treatment centers, instead.
That's the trend, to pass feel-good legislation and say you did something about safety issues. In fact, the only thing that works is to hold people responsible for drinking and driving, for being reckless or distracted while driving, for not researching risk-benefits of wearing seat belts, smoking, and eating fast food and making informed decisions.
If we could put a fee on the trend against personal responsibility in the year 2003, we could balance the state budget and have money left over for a tax cut.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited
Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and the Lowell Sun;
bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.
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