Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Rant on Disproportionate "Taxes" on Motorists

On December 31, 2010, two Los Angeles Times reporters wrote separate articles on related subjects.  Nardine Saad wrote an article about the State of California's intent to impose an additional $4 charge on all traffic and parking tickets, purported to pay for "emergency air transport services because of a revenue shortfall in Medi-Cal funding." Marc Lifsher wrote an article about the imposition of "crash taxes" on motorists who are found "at fault" in vehicle accidents for the costs of emergency services at the scene.

Nardine's article is at,0,6845681.story.  Marc's article is at,0,2932838.story?page=1.

I am deeply troubled by this increasing tendency of government to essentially tax individual citizens (indeed all persons) to pay the costs of governmental services and obligations that these same citizens are already supporting through their payment of income taxes, sales taxes, other revenue taxes and the like. Requiring the recipients of services to pay for those services often makes sense but double taxation does not and, as discussed below, in these instances the new taxes have been undertaken as "practical" necessities to cover budget shortfalls rather than as the result of well thought out public policy. I protest and so should you!

Below is an email I sent to Nardine and Marc thanking them for their articles but also urging them to probe further and expose this tendency to double tax.  I admit that my own anger over this approach is in part the result of having been given a ticket for a traffic violation I did not commit, only to discover that a base fine of $35 or so had been multiplied into a fine of about $250 or more. As most of you know, I am (still) a liberal Democrat but these kinds of governmental measures risk pushing me into the anti-tax alliance!

My email to Nardine and Marc:

Thank you for your complementary articles in yesterday's (December 31, 2010) Los Angeles Times. I recently was given a traffic ticket for allegedly having made a so-called California stop. I was amazed at the amount due to multipliers and additional fees for courtroom construction and the like, above and beyond a rather small "base" fine. Your articles captured what is happening but, in my opinion, only begin the discussion which I urge you both to pursue.

Nardine, your article, "Price of a Traffic Ticket Going Up $4," reflects the decision by legislators to impose on motorists who violate, or are accused of violating, parking and traffic laws taxes masquerading as fines for governmental functions that are only indirectly related to traffic and parking. In this case, you report that the increased fine is intended to pay for emergency air transport services because the legislature and voters have chosen to underfund Medi-Cal.

Marc, your article on "Crash Taxes" at least describes a tax that directly relates to a traffic event, but again seeks to impose on the taxpayer who was "at fault" in an accident an additional tax above and beyond what he or she already pays for police, fire and other emergency services.

I strongly urge either or both of you to research and write an article or articles on this entire process that seeks to impose on individual motorists the costs of various governmental services and/or obligations that traditionally have been funded more directly by the legislative bodies. Building and maintaining courthouses is a basic responsibility of government and to single out a particular class of citizens to pay an undue proportion of the costs is, in my view, grossly unfair. That those saddled with this burden have broken a law may make them less sympathetic but, particularly in the case of those who have illegally parked or not fully stopped at a stop sign, we aren't talking about folks who have intentionally set forest fires or otherwise engaged in purposeful illegal acts. Then, too, as you both know, most motorists who are ticketed end up paying the "bail" rather than contesting the matter in court. Many if not most do this not because they have committed the violation but because the costs of contesting the matter as well as a recognition that in a liar's contest between citizen and police officer the court is more likely than not to believe the officer make challenging the ticket are, as an economic calculation, greater than the costs of paying the "bail." That economic calculation itself is deplorable and contrary to what a fair justice system should require.

Marc, in your article on "crash taxes," I commend you for covering much of this issue of what I consider double taxation on those who may be "at fault" for an accident but already pay taxes for emergency and other governmental services.

What at least I find a bit ironic here is that I am not a conservative or a supporter of the insurance lobby. Quite the contrary! But this increasing movement toward "pay as you go" taxation or taxation focused on the so-called user of services must have its limits and be fully discussed as a public policy option. We see at our public universities an increasing movement toward student fees, now finally called tuition, as the general public and legislators refuse to allocate public funds to support higher (or K-12) education, once thought of as a core governmental function that should be funded through the General Fund to enable all citizens an opportunity to improve themselves and thereby strengthen the society, the economy, and the democracy.

I recognize, as a former political scientist turned attorney, that there are arguments on all sides of these issues. But I fear that there has not been any real public discussion. Rather, the state, cities and public universities, cash strapped because of underfunding and economic crises, have simply gone forward and taken what they often call "practical measures" to raise fees and taxes on individuals. These actions are not truly driven by some public policy consideration that has been discussed and debated but merely by exigencies and that is dangerous.

Thank you both for your efforts to cover these important issues! I encourage further probing and pushing legislative bodies to discuss these matters more openly, something the Los Angeles Times has been doing well as of late!

Happy New Year!

Donald A. Newman
Long Beach, CA