and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation


Barbara's Column
February 2003 #3

Bureaucratic waters get choppy for skipper
and his new-but-used sailboat

by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

While I'm still in a Valentine's Day mood (i.e., flush with chocolate), I want to offer a Valentine to my state representative, Doug Petersen, D-Marblehead; his aide, Cheryl; and a few bureaucrats in the office of the Massachusetts Environmental Police.

The story begins when Chip, my significant other, bought a used sailboat in the dead of winter, getting a better deal than one can get in spring when many men's fancy turns to thoughts of sailing.

When he tried to register it he was told that if the sailboat has a motor of any kind it must be registered and have a title; and "don't forget to pay your sales tax" because it must be paid soon after purchase.

Here are excerpts from Chip's prepared response, which he didn't send, but repeated to various people over the following week:

"This is a 30-year-old, 22-foot sailboat that has been parked in storage for many years. The guy I bought it from didn't have a title nor did he get one from the previous owner. It hasn't been wet, registered, or titled to the best of anyone's knowledge for years. Now what?

"I presume the alleged purpose of the 1990 title law (adopted during the state's last fiscal crisis) is to prevent theft and recover stolen property ... or am I missing something? We know under a state Supreme Judicial Court decision that a fee cannot exceed the cost of providing a specific service, so how do you intend to ever identify the boat I recently purchased (if it was indeed stolen) if I'm not allowed to register it, title or not?

"Does your agency recover many stolen boats by this counterproductive method, to justify that the fee charged is indeed for a specific service provided?

"Furthermore, if your agency won't register the 30-year-old boat without a title, and I have no title thus the 30-year-old boat can't be registered -- can't be used -- then pray tell why would I even consider paying a sales tax on a boat I obviously don't own under your determination, and thus is without value except perhaps as a planter or a monument to senseless bureaucratic government?

"I know you don't write the laws, and I know that those who do write them often are oblivious to the consequences of their acts even when they occasionally know what they're voting on, other than to raise revenue by any means. But don't you think this silliness defeats everyone's purposes? The state can't very well tax me for a boat it doesn't recognize that I own, and it's certainly precluded itself from collecting any fees from me for it.

"Maybe the only solution you've left to me is to just let it sit as well, take out some ads in New Hampshire newspapers, and unload it on someone who lives in a rational, functioning state?"

Instead of sending the letter, Chip called our state representative, whose aide, Cheryl, set up a meeting with several important members of the Department of Environmental Police. He learned that many people have run into this problem, including people who inherit boats that are found in barns and garages, and boatyard owners who salvage lost vessels.

When Chip offered to draft a corrective piece of legislation, the DEP had suggestions to make the existing law make sense. Rep. Petersen has offered to file it.

Meanwhile, with DEP help, Chip tracked down a long-ago previous owner who had actually obtained a title and still had it. His new acquaintances accepted that old title.

So all's well that sails well, and the reason it is important to know this is:

Gov. Mitt Romney, facing yet another fiscal crisis like the one in 1990, has just increased the boat registration fee, assessing even greater costs upon irrationality, at least until such time as Chip's bill becomes law.

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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