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Nickels and Dimes


The unfathomable irresposibility of the US Federal budget is echoed in local government all across the land. Diminished economic activity had led to lower revenue for city and State governments. Since politicians are congenitally unable to recognize anything more than token waste in government operations, they can’t cut spending to keep budgets in balance. So they’re turning to myriad “revenue enhancements”:

Nothing, it seems, is off the table. In Pima County, Ariz., the County Board of Supervisors increased an assortment of fees, including the cost of AIDS testing. Florida has proposed raising medical visit co-payments for inmates in state prisons. Parking fees at the Honolulu Zoo could rise by 500 percent if a proposal there goes through.

Politicians tend to regard fees as more palatable than taxes, and more focused too. If a state needs to finance an infrastructure to oversee fishing, why shouldn’t fishermen foot the bill? But groups like the nonpartisan Tax Foundation in Washington worry that governments are now using fees to shore up budget shortfalls rather than cover specific costs incurred by specific users.

“When it comes to paying for bananas, you’ve got the market as a mechanism to make sure you’re paying a fair price,” says Josh Barro, a staff economist at the Tax Foundation. “But when it comes to getting your driver’s license renewed, the government has a monopoly, and you have no idea what it costs the state or what it’s doing with the money.”

The story starts by recounting an “accident response fee” billed to a driver in a motor crash. I kind of like that one. It knocks the legs out from under a standard argument for mandatory helmet and seat-belt laws.

The argument says that it is O.K. for the government to make you wear a helmet because they have to come scrape your brains off the pavement when you crash your motorcycle. More helmets mean less brains to clean up. But, if I'm being billed for the clean-up, there’s no need for the helmet law.

Also mentioned in the story is a DC “streetlight use fee”. Minneapolis tried that in 2007. It failed.

In another example of the Minneapolis City Council being ahead of the shakedown curve, our frozen Omaha did pass an anti-idling ordinance. Of course, govenrment vehicles are pretty much exempt. Now look for a push—led by health nazi Gary Schiff—to follow Staten Island’s lead and increase the penalty in school zones.

And, of course, Minnesotans recall our jelly-spined Governor’s Clintonesque and ill-fated 75¢ cigarette tax fee.

It’s the same sort of non-logic used by boosters to fund a new Twins ballpark. The .15% Hennepin County sales tax amounted to three cents on a twenty dollar purchase. We suckers were told nobody would even notice their pockets were a few pennies lighter.

A few pennies here, a nickel there. Maybe a dime or a quarter from some political minority. Nobody will notice. Until we’re out of nickels.