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Posted by on Sep 14, 2009 in At TMV | 1 comment

The Next Big Tax Issue—Parking Tickets

When I tell friends that the next major tax debate should focus on parking tickets, the response is almost always the same. They tell me about how they were recently screwed by an overly aggressive ticket-slinger, then relate tales of similar abuse experienced by other people they know. 

Sure, they finally acknowledge, parking metering and ticketing is a stealth tax. A curb tax. But a major taxing issue? Nah. This is just a nickel and dime rip-off. 

Alas, they’re wrong. The curb tax isn’t nickel and dime. It’s big leagues taxation. And when one looks ahead, focuses on the potential of regulation-based taxes generally, a scenario in which parking tickets are just the leading edge of a fast-materializing tax wave, a very troubling picture starts to come into view.

To see this clearly, first forget those hysterical anti-ticketing rants. Metering and ticketing are perfectly valid, very necessary tools to turn over a limited number of parking spaces in urban environments. Failing to have such a system could have all sorts of nasty consequences. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with these locales making some money from on-street parking in order to fund needed local services. But…

Beginning in the early 1980s, when a city in which I was living at the time, Boston, hired a consultant to revamp its own parking system, and the parking ticket take jumped from $3 million to $34 million in a single year, local officials around the country took note. The great motorist milking effort then commenced in earnest. 

Today, parking tickets are no longer chump change for local governments. In just two cities last year, New York and Washington, $649 million flowed into local coffers from ticketing. I did a study of 10 large cities in the country and found that collectively they garnered almost a billion dollars last year from this source.

Because there are thousands of American cities and towns, it would be very difficult to come up with an exact national ticket price tag. But for comparison purposes, in the U.K. where records in this realm are more carefully kept, more than 1.3 billion pounds (about 2 billion U.S. dollars) worth of parking tickets were collected in 2008—and the U.K. has only one-fifth of our own population and one-seventh the number of vehicles on its roads compared to our own American car culture. 

Clearly, parking tickets in this country are now a multi-billion-curb tax burden. And this meter and ticket burden grows by the month. Stories about this growth have become regular features in virtually every major daily as well as national media such as USA Today and Fox News.

All right, some might say. But so what? We need well run metering and ticketing systems. Cities and towns need revenue and this provides some at a time when other traditional sources of local revenue such as real estate taxes, sales taxes, and aid from hard-pressed states have fallen off dramatically because of the recession. What’s wrong with a curb tax as alternative coffer filler? 

What’s wrong is that this curb tax, masquerading as simple regulatory enforcement, is a blatant example of taxation without representation. It’s a tax whose size is not determined by public debate in the manner, say, of a boost in real estate tax rates, but by bureaucratic fiat. It’s also tax for which elected officials rarely have to pay a price at the next election. How many mayors, after all, have been thrown out of office because their city’s parking meters had to be fed until midnight instead of 6 p.m? How many state legislators have lost their jobs because they added a $3 surcharge to all parking tickets in their state, as California legislators did at the end of last year?

The opportunities for abuse here are obvious both in theory and practice. And when you think of who pays the curb tax most often and who it hurts the most, the utterly regressive nature of this exaction is glaring.

In considering concerns about the curb tax, one other scary possibility quickly emerges. Curb taxing is just the leading edge of a wave of regulation-based stealth taxation — because when you think about it, there are local regulations for all sorts of good and necessary things that can be perverted into nouveau taxes with just a little tweaking. 

There’s littering. Broken headlights and taillights. Turning on red without making a full stop first. Improperly putting out recyclables. Sipping coffee from an open container while driving. Not keeping your kid from playing hooky from school. Each such violation is already on the books. There’s possible justification to fine (i.e. tax) when it comes to all of them. 

And fines for all the regulations noted above are now, in fact, being collected in some parts of the country. Why not everywhere? “For the public good, of course,” officials will argue. “Certainly not for the added revenue,” they will add. “Go prove otherwise,” they’ll conclude with a smirk.

I have this awful fantasy — a vision of a future tax dystopia. A vision that smacks a bit of Orwell’s 1984. In that novel, TVs with cameras monitored your every move and conversation indoors. In my dystopian vision, the cameras are outdoors monitoring your almost inevitable violation of some regulation or other during the course of a day, a violation that leads to a fine that brings more money into coffers of governments at the same time these governments are assuring their citizens their taxes aren’t rising. 

The types of cameras that could do this outdoor monitoring are already in place in English cities — installed originally to track potential terrorists. The means to identify individual regulation breakers are already a software reality. The need of governments for more revenue while not raising traditional taxes are everywhere on view.     

Maybe I’m just a conspiracy nut. Or a guy who sees the worst possibilities in every situation. Or maybe I found the future of municipal finance on my car windshield this morning, and found the prospect very unappealing.
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