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Citizen Voices

Getting Beyond Labels

Sometimes it all boils down to labels. 

In high school it was all about having the correct little symbol embroidered on the shirt. Twenty-six years later, it's all about slapping the correct words on your policies. The relevance and symbolism remains the same, with the meanings of our leaders as transparent and obvious as my friend's grandmother who knew how to stitch a certain little pony. 

"No new taxes," as Steven wrote here yesterday - that's the promise of presidential candidate John McCain. As the Union-Tribune reported on Feb. 18, that's also the policy of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration. His fee proposals are detailed in Michael Gardner's article there.  


But where "taxes" won't work, re-label the money grab as "fees" and hold your head high.

Even San Diego's Pacific Beach parking board is interested in the label, or at least the revenue associated with the label. 

While one could go on for volumes trying to distinguish the difference between taxes and fees, I hauled out Black's Law Dictionary to try and make some sense of it. The definitions of the two words ran to more than three pages of tiny little dictionary type, and the closest I could get to a generalized distinction is that fees are imposed on users of privileges, where taxes are imposed equally on all.

I suppose that works if you believe that access to government is a privilege. Government these days is all about the fees, whether it's for access to the civil court system ($320 to file an unlimited civil case in San Diego), or international travel ($100 for a passport), or parking at a California state park ($4-14, depending on the park).  

But regardless of the labels, it's still government taking cash to provide a service.  I wonder if anyone running for election during this cycle will go beyond a "no new taxes" pledge and actually promise to freeze the cost of government, regardless of that label gets slapped on the source of the money. 


- -Citizen Voices blogger Chuck Hartley is an attorney who lives in Escondido.

Alma from San Diego
February 21, 2008 at 04:59 AM
The line between fines and taxes shouldn't be between having access to the process and being denied a so-called privilege. It seems at least in theory paying taxes should automatically mean access to the legislative process, but it just means you won't get hauled into prison for tax evasion. If going to the beach in SD is now considered a "privilege" and not part of being a taxpayer, what's next? Charging us per square inch of beach space?

Chuck from Escondido, CA
February 21, 2008 at 04:22 PM
It seems to me that the goal is simple diversification. Get as many revenue streams going as possible so that when the people finally do get fed up and cut off one (a la Prop. 13), the others are in place to take up the slack. Debate about actually reducing the size and impact of government in day-to-day life just doesn't even enter into things anymore. Neither does actually tying fees to costs. In researching the post, and coincidentally my need to renew my passport, I noticed that passports now cost $100. The application can be done by mail and they take weeks, if not months, to deliver. A California drivers license, where a live person might actually administer a test, costs only $28. There's money to be made in these "fees" but it's not like either document is really optional, especially with new border security requirements coming into play. I think too many of these local fiefdoms also don't realize the impact of their silly little fees. I used to regularly meet people for lunch in PB, but parking got too tight and I took my business elsewhere. If they think meters and the risk of parking fines will bring my business back they're way out of touch.

February 21, 2008 at 09:47 PM
San Diegans were notoriously tight pursed when it came/comes to funding fire stations in the unincorporated eastern regions of SD - curious as to your take on this issue.

Chuck from Escondido, CA
February 21, 2008 at 11:11 PM
Even after the Firestorm, there's still no county-wide fire department. There are 20 (plus or minus) local community departments with no centralized management, and presumably an allocation of resources based only on what the local community wants to (or can) pay. Even after the Firestorm though, and going through the evacuation , I certainly don't see why San Diegans (or us Escondidans) should be funding more rural fire stations when the local communities won't. I'm not wild about a county fire department either - I think it will just pit those rural communities in fiscal battles against each other for the fire resources, and with other county departments for the financing. Having lived in some fairly undeveloped areas over the years, I think life away from the larger, modern cities has tradeoffs, and one of them is going to be a potentially longer wait for a fire truck (or other emergency vehicle) in the event of an emergency. People who've chosen to live out there should know that not having to hear the sirens every few hours means the sirens won't get there as fast when they're needed.

February 22, 2008 at 08:06 PM
well put - Wallace Stegner, novelist and brilliant thinker on the American West puts forth some of the same ideas - suburban lifestyles are not a birthright and are resisted by much of our parched land...

Chuck from Escondido, CA
February 23, 2008 at 02:00 AM
"suburban lifestyles are not a birthright and are resisted by much of our parched land… " I just wish they'd be rejected by a few more people.

February 23, 2008 at 09:15 PM
Problem with just keeping revenues stable is that all levels of government are in hip deep in debt. Bond, pension, and entitlement debt. The last few generations have dumped it one their children. So we either increase taxes or do without. More fire stations in the backcountry, ha! People have no idea how deep we are. People must begin to realize that we will have to give up a lot of government services and/or public employees can no longer be paid lucrative compensations.

Chuck from Escondido, CA
February 23, 2008 at 11:04 PM
No arguments here. Debt needs to be paid down and contractual obligations such as pensions need to be met. If that means cuts in services, so be it.