When Is a “Fee” Really a Tax?

This week the state of California is sending out a bill of $150 to rural Californians calling it a Fire Prevention Fee.

If a fee looks like a tax, walks like a tax, smells like a tax, and costs money like a tax, it really is a tax — no matter what our legislature calls it. This is precisely why this new fire prevention tax (let’s call it what it really is) runs counter to the state constitution requiring a two-thirds majority to pass. The prevailing theme in Sacramento seems to be, “How can we raise taxes without confronting that pesky constitutional two-thirds majority rule?” Simple, if the tax is re-named a “fee”, the very purpose of the two-thirds majority is circumvented. 

This week, the state Board of Equalization is starting the process of sending out bills to more than 800,000 California residents requiring them to pay an additional $150 fire prevention “fee”. This “small fee” will raise approximately 85 million new tax dollars from taxpayers around the state. This fee is simply another sleight of hand gimmick to rename a tax as a “fee” so as to balance the state budget.

In California, in order to protect the citizens of this state, it is required that the legislature receive a two-thirds vote in order to increase taxes. However, politicians have gotten around this requirement by changing the title from tax and calling it a fee. Now all the Democrat leaders need is to obtain a simple majority and our constitutional protections are rendered meaningless. 

What is the real reason behind this new tax? Governor Brown sought the tax to help close the state’s budget deficit last year and the Democrat controlled legislature agreed to this tax increase on rural Californians to begin in 2012. By taxing rural Californians for fire prevention services, the state legislature now has more money available to spend on other projects. Instead of cutting the budgets of unnecessary and wasteful spending, the Democrat controlled legislature decided that they would tax rural Californians for services their taxes were already paying for.

Think of it this way. Your favorite restaurant always provided free rolls to every guest when they purchased a meal. Now the restaurant wants to raise its prices on meals in order to pay for an elaborate new kitchen expansion, but decides instead of raising prices it will charge 50¢ per roll. To the consumer coming into the restaurant, the price of the meal has gone up because they are not receiving the free rolls with the purchase of their meal.

Some might say that it only affects 4,336 property owners in Contra Costa County and only 4,200 property owners in Alameda County. Why should the rest of us be concerned about such a small percentage of the total population? The simple answer is “who will be next” to fall prey to this creative definition of “fees”?  Perhaps a “police protection fee” should be assessed upon all Californians who live in this state so that the money that is being used to pay police can be used to pay for the .

As long as “fees” can be substituted for taxes, the taxpayers will be hostage to politicians always looking to revenues rather than budgeting to solve our fiscal mess.

It is time to hold the Democrat controlled legislature accountable for their actions. We need to look at how our elected officials voted on these issues and we need to let them know that it is their responsibility to protect all taxpayers (Senate/Assembly). If we want to see California be great once again, then we need to have leaders who do not protect their own pet projects at the expense of rural Californians.

Mark Meuser is a candidate for State Senate District 7. You can follow him on Facebook.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

KFrances August 26, 2012 at 07:42 PM
C-Span had interseting authors on this morning. The theme was the VERY easy and overnight rise of the Police State after 9/11. Fees, Regulations and now Social Equity are mechanisms for the 'State' to do whatever it wants to do - i.e...: (notice the Social Equity piece and anything in the name of VERY expensive Climate Change technologies) - : http://www.onebayarea.org/plan_bay_area/faq.htm#24
Tom August 26, 2012 at 10:48 PM
The police and fire unions along with other public sector forces are BKing the state. The spreadsheet will soon take over.
Ian Lipnicky (still a SportsFan) August 26, 2012 at 11:21 PM
Steve - Voter ID is reasonable. Chris - Seems reasonable. But, again, this 2/3 requirement is garbage. 50%+1 is how it all should work or everything should be 2/3. Stupid to require 50%+1 on some things and 2/3 on others.
Chris Nicholson August 26, 2012 at 11:36 PM
SportsFan: You worry me when you agree with me, so I gotta double check. Note that I said "in value" meaning for a $100/parcel tax, you'd need the vote of 50%+1 of the parcels subject to the tax that voted. For a 10% tax on parcels, you'd need 50%+$0.01 of the value of the parcels subject to the tax that voted. For a structural overhaul like a redo of income taxes, I would allow a popular vote (not by value), but only for those who paid household taxes in excess of the gov't spending per household (i.e., people who pay positive "net" taxes and thereby subsidize those who do not). Perhaps entirely impractical, but I think a fundamentally fair framework. This would be for new taxes / tax hikes. For tax REDUCTIONS, I would require 50%+1 popular vote. The problem with a general rule of 50%+1 to raise taxes is that it is inherently unstable and tends to lead to a structure where the "takers" will always extract more and more from the "givers." Consciously or not, it is always more appealing to spend other people's money.
Ian Lipnicky (still a SportsFan) August 27, 2012 at 12:21 AM
@Chris - Yes. Sometimes even you get something right.


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