LAST YEAR, PENNSYLVANIA environmental groups promoted a landfill tipping surcharge, also known as a trash tax, as a revenue source for environmental programs. To overcome resistance to new taxes, they were relying on the less- personal impact of a hidden tax so taxpayers wouldn't know what caused their higher disposal prices.
Back in high school civics class, we were taught how taxes can be seen or hidden. A sales tax, for instance, is an open tax. It always is listed separately from the purchase price so the buyer knows how much tax he is paying.
The trash tax is a classic example of a hidden tax. Legislators prefer hidden taxes because they know voters are less likely to object to taxes they don't know about. In the case of the trash tax, although households and businesses ultimately pay the tax, the state bills public and private sector landfill operators. Their customers never see the tax as a separate line item on their bills. Instead, they see higher prices or reduced garbage or recycling services.
To help their case for the trash tax, supporters cited the results of polls showing that the majority of Pennsylvanians thought a trash tax as high as $12 per ton would be a small price to pay for clean water and open space protection.
Anyone familiar with polls knows how often people will give the politically correct answer. I remember seeing poll results in the early 1990s where a substantial number of the respondents said they would pay $25 or more per month to support a recycling program. Of course, if any hauler or local official tried to charge $25 per month for a recycling program, they would have been run out of town. Therefore, when I saw the Pennsylvania poll results, I wondered how many would have said “yes” if the pollster had asked them for a $12 donation to an environmental fund.
So I now propose the Chaz Challenge. I challenge all trash tax supporters to be honest about new taxes. I challenge them to support trash taxes that will be levied directly on taxpayers as a specific line item on their tax bills. This way, taxpayers will know they are paying a tax instead of higher tipping fees via landfill operators. This way, taxpayers will know they are paying a tax instead of paying a tipping fee that is higher because it includes a hidden tax.
One option would be a specific line on their garbage bill titled “trash tax.” Another would be a checkoff system on everyone's income tax return, where the taxpayer would agree to pay an extra $12 in taxes to the environmental fund.
Not every taxpayer will be willing to pay an extra $12 into an environmental fund. Some might not be able to afford it; others might have different priorities for their money. But why not give people a chance to put their money where they tell the pollsters they want it to go?
As it turned out, Pennsylvania's legislators double-crossed the “greens” by opting to use the first $50 million raised by the trash tax to help overcome the state's budgetary deficit. Too bad the polls didn't give that as an option when they asked the trash tax question, maybe they would have said “no.”
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]