Funt: Fees, fines and fairness

Peter Funt

Peter Funt

Which best describes your view of America? Everyone pays an equal share? Or, everyone pays his fair share?

Both sound reasonable. One hinges on equality, the other on fairness — two principles we generally embrace.

But as I wrote in The New York Times the other day, we are increasingly becoming a nation of haves and have-less, based in part on the belief that we should all pay an equal share when it comes to government fees and services.

My column focused on so-called Express Lanes on highways, where motorists are now able to pay high fees to travel what used to be called High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes — while driving alone. By creating these “Lexus Lanes,” government is giving special privilege to the wealthy, while restricting access by the poor to a state service.

The broader issue, and corresponding debate, covers everything from paying to jump the TSA line at airports to being required by law to pay for a paper bag at the supermarket. Such charges are regressive: their impact is greatest on those least able to pay.

In California, where the Lexus Lanes are expanding rapidly, the tax on gasoline was recently bumped yet again. The money is earmarked for highway repairs, and the rationale from lawmakers is that gas taxes impact only people who use highways.

But in most states — particularly California — virtually everyone uses highways, so charging more per gallon affects the poor far more than the wealthy. Why should fixing highways be any different from fixing, say, parks?

All of a state’s needs should be covered by Income and property taxes, levied on a progressive scale.

I mentioned paper bags. In California, as part of a ban on plastic bags, the state requires supermarkets to charge 10 cents for paper bags. Stores would be willing to give them away free — as they did before – but now they are required to charge a fee.

Does a dime or two hurt? Certainly not as much as a $20 ride in an Express Lane, but the less you have, the more it matters. Such fees are literally nickel and diming the poor into tougher straights.

San Francisco, one of the more progressive bastions in a generally progressive state, is studying whether certain fees and fines — such as those for illegal parking – should be scaled based on the ability of the violator to pay.

Supervisor Jane Kim, who successfully pushed for lowered car tow-away fees last year, tells the San Francisco Chronicle that she’s working on legislation for a sliding scale covering fines and fees, and is likely to introduce it next month.

“We want everyone with a car to behave, and we have rules for a reason, but fines should be a deterrent,” Kim said. “They shouldn’t be impoverishing our families.”

Adjusting fines for illegal behavior based on income takes the issue of fairness to another level, one that is certainly more debatable. Yet, Kim makes a good point: why allow millionaires to park illegally without concern about the penalty, while seriously impacting the lives of poorer people for the very same behavior?

For me, the starting point is this: municipal facilities and services should be equally available to all citizens, and paid for by progressive taxation on everyone, based on income or property. No citizen should be allowed to purchase special access — whether it’s to a highway lane or an airport line.

Some regressive charges, such as local sales taxes, are necessary, but should be limited. Other fees and fines should be based, to the extent possible, on a person’s ability to pay.

Equality or fairness? What we need is equal fairness for all.

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