Make the Haulers Pay!

IT'S SILLY SEASON again in Pennsylvania. Once again, the governor needs money and he wants haulers to be his tax collectors.

This time, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell wants to add $5 to the $7.25 per ton landfill tax. He also wants a new $4 per ton tax for industrial waste. Gov. Rendell is touting this as an environmental tax to cleanup Pennsylvania. Make the polluters pay, he says, although the connection between run-of-the-mill garbage and cleaning up the environment is tenuous at best.

Tax supporters insist the impact on individual Pennsylvanians will be little — about a penny a day — and that because half of the solid waste landfilled in the Keystone State comes from other states, the local burden will be even lighter.

Gee. A penny a day for a clean P.A. Sounds great, doesn't it? Too bad their facts are wrong or misleading.

Let's start with the claim that half of the garbage landfilled in Pennsylvania comes from out-of-state. According to state data, about 40 percent of the solid waste landfilled in 2003 was from out of state. Doesn't sound like half to me.

And if the pro-taxers are right that higher taxes are a barrier to out-of-state waste, then the share paid by Pennsylvanians only will go up. The tax will have to be continuously increased to make up for lost revenue.

Another claim is that landfill taxes lead to more recycling and less garbage. The state's data shows, however, that garbage taxes have not led to less landfilling of Pennsylvania's own trash.

Finally, what about the claim that the tax is a minimal burden on individuals? Seemingly, this is right — but only when individuals contract directly with their own garbage hauler. And only if we forget about the trash tax that already exists.

If a city collects trash, then it has to pay the trash tax out of its own tax base. The city will either have to raise taxes or cut services. A small price for an individual becomes a big price for a mayor.

Let's pretend you are the mayor of a town of 20,000. The town landfills about 15,000 tons of garbage per year and currently pays $110,000 in state trash taxes. Under the new tax, the mayor will have to come up with another $75,000 to pay the state. And just imagine how big the bill will be for Pittsburgh or Philly.

Which tax would you raise, or which services would you cut? Police? Fire? Education? Or perhaps you would ask each resident to send the governor a penny a day.

Polls show that a majority of Pennsylvanians support the tax. Or do they? Actually, support for the tax depends on how the poll question is worded. According to pollsters, people oppose the tax if they have to pay it but support the tax if the “haulers” have to pay it. Think about this for a second. Both the public and private sectors haul trash in Pennsylvania. In either case, their customers become the taxpayers.

A trash tax is just another unfunded mandate on local governments. Both public and private sector waste haulers and landfill operators will pass the tax on to their customers. Make the haulers pay? No, customers will pay, as they always do.

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].