Circular File: Spring Fling

Trash taxes pop up alongside the tulips and daffodils.

Spring is here, and trash tax proposals are dropping like cherry blossoms. The economic doldrums facing most state governments have proven to be a powerful fertilizer for new taxes on garbage. After all, trash doesn't vote, and some politicians see it as an easy way to fill budget holes.

South Carolina's governor was the first out of the gate when he proposed a trash tax as a way to erect barriers to out-of-state waste. It seems that garbage generated in North Carolina and several other states goes to disposal in South Carolina landfills. Several legislators, insisting that the Palmetto State should not become “America's toilet,” are angrily insisting that the state do “something.” (The toilet claim, by the way, makes me wonder what these guys put in their trash.) The legislators, however, don't want that “something” to be new taxes, because they know that South Carolinians also will be subject to the taxes. Instead, they are hoping a permitting moratorium on new landfills will give the state environmental agency time to write new permitting regulations that will curb waste imports.

Ohio's governor is backing a trash tax for different reasons. He wants to profit off of out-of-state waste by raising the “fee” but keeping it lower than in most of the surrounding states. (Don't you just love it when politicians call a tax a “fee?” It's sort of like calling a bullet a “metallic object.”) Left unmentioned is the fact that Ohioans also will have to pay the higher tax and that local governments will have to raise taxes or cut services to pay the new “fee” on their residential garbage.

Wisconsin's governor is the most audacious of all. He is proposing a $4.40 per ton increase in the state trash tax, which would give the Badger State the highest garbage tax in America at $10.30 per ton. Wow! If that passes, he can start shouting, “We're number one!” What a great way to create a business-friendly environment while also putting an immense new burden on local governments! At least in his case, he is making no bones about the fact that the trash tax will be used to fill holes in the state's budget that are totally unrelated to solid waste management. I suspect his next step will be to encourage Wisconsinites to generate as much garbage as possible for the good of the state's fiscal environment. Maybe he can set garbage-making goals for each city and fine those who don't generate enough.

Even local governments are not immune to the trash tax virus. Pressed by their own budget problems, they are under immense pressure to cut costs, raise taxes or both. To make matters worse, as the recession causes a drop in waste generation and recycling markets remain in the doldrums, they are seeing significant revenue shortfalls from tipping fees and the sale of recyclables. They need money to prop up those programs.

In response, many local governments that offer “free” garbage and recycling programs will start imposing a monthly charge instead of paying for the programs out of the property tax or general revenues. But don't expect a tax rebate. That money will be used for other programs. And while spring flowers soon fade, taxes are evergreen.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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