District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty has proposed imposing a street light “user fee” on residents and businesses in Washington DC. Funds raised would help defray costs of street light maintenance and operation, and would be collected through surcharges on electric utility bills. If enacted, the measure would cost average DC households about $51 a year.
The rationale for a “user fee” is that it isn’t a tax imposed on everyone; a user fee is only paid by those using a specific service, and is proportional to the rate of use. Mayor Fenty’s measure, however, does not exempt blind Washingtonians from this “user fee,” and they are not consumers of street light services.
Fenty (D), who promised during his campaign that he would not raise taxes, has referred to the changes as “fees increases.” Asked last week why they should not be considered tax increases, Fenty replied: “Because I don’t define it as one.”
Council members have questioned Fenty’s semantics.
“In terms of the particular fees, a little straight talk is appropriate. It’s a kind of tax,” said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). “We’re increasing costs on people in a variety of ways.”
–“Fenty Proposes New Taxes, Fees,” David Nakamura, Washington Post
Is the choice between the terms “tax” and “user fee” a distinction without a difference? No. Calling something a tax a “tax” has the virtue of honesty; calling a charge a “user fee” when it is really a tax is specious, pure casuistry or sophistry — in other words, it is politics as usual.
Calling a tax a “user fee” is simply an attempt by politicians to avoid responsibility for implementing necessary tax increases and — in this case — pin the blame on the electric company. This sham was invented under Republican patron saint Ronald Reagan, and should have been buried with him. Is Democrat Fenty about to change parties?
As Council Member Cheh observed, such a user fee would increase resident costs “in a variety of ways.” The Mayor’s bill does not compensate PEPCO for collecting this tax “fee,” and the process is not without cost, which would probably be passed on to consumers through higher electric rates.
“D.C. Mayor Proposes Streetlight Tax, Other Taxes; Calls Them ‘Fees,'” Joseph Henchman, Tax Policy Blog
“Big city taxes: Who pays what,” Julianne Pepitone, CNN Money
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