Pixel Tracker

Saturday, November 17 , 2018, 6:48 pm | Fog/Mist 59º

 
 
 
 

Peter Funt: Fees, Fines and Fairness Fuel Debate Over Highway Robbery

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 Times 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 Transportation Security Administration 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 legislators is that gas taxes affect 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 than 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, told 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 affecting 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.

Peter Funt is a writer, speaker and author of the book, Cautiously Optimistic. He is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons and can be contacted at www.candidcamera.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.