March 07, 2006

"No New Taxes": Not That Simple

Anyone who's seen their local property taxes shoot up in the last five years probably senses that "no new taxes" may make a great campaign slogan for state lawmakers, but it has a much more nuanced meaning in practice. Something more along the lines of "Let's find a less visible way to pay for public services." A new Houston Chronicle report documents the proliferation of user fees--and surtaxes on user fees, and surtaxes on those surtaxes--that are being used to make ends meet while state lawmakers avoid the hard questions about how to reform the Texas tax system:
Chemical plant technician Steven Lozano really got nailed: speeding, an expired inspection sticker, an expired driver's license and dubious proof of insurance. The cost of his traffic infractions: $675 and a wait in line recently at Houston Municipal Court. What Lozano didn't know — few people do — is that only about half of the hefty fines had anything to do with his traffic conduct.... Lozano and everyone else in line that day were paying 21 mandatory fees that now grace the average local traffic citation.
User fees have their place, of course. But there should always be a well-thought-out rationale for enacting them, and Texas lawmakers aren't inspiring much confidence on this front:
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, created a 50-cent traffic-ticket surcharge, the Prairie View A&M fund, by amending a bill in 1997. He makes no apology. 'That type of funding is used. Period,' West said.
Lawmakers are paid to ask, and answer, hard questions about how to fairly and adequately fund public services. Taking a "no new taxes" pledge is generally about as far as lawmakers can get from fulfilling this duty, and in the end is often just a smokescreen-- something to remember the next time you register your car or pay a speeding ticket.


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