We would prefer some of you to speed and make us money: just please try not to hit anybody

The Taxman Hits, in the Guise of a Traffic Cop

SHORT of cash and long of arm, the State of Virginia recently unveiled the nation’s first $1,050 speeding ticket.

All over the country, supporting safety improvements on the wages of reckless driving has become a tradition. But in the relations between government and its citizens, the four-digit traffic ticket also seems to signal a leap in the use of fines and fees — and just about any other form of enhanced governmental income production — to avoid the dreaded thing itself, a tax increase.

The rising cost of public benefits like pensions, health care and police services, combined with the conventional wisdom that raising taxes is political poison, have led public officials to cast a wide net for this kind of public revenue.

Leasing public bridges in Kentucky. Taxing tattoo parlors in Arkansas. Selling off large chunks of the state highway system in Indiana. Selling off bundles of state student loan portfolios in Missouri. Taxing funeral processions in New Orleans. Those are just some recent measures undertaken or proposed.

“Anything that puts money in the treasury, without raising taxes, is on the table,” said Sujit CanagaRetna, chief fiscal officer for the Council of State Governments, a Washington-based research group that works with state lawmakers. “It is a trend that we see growing tremendously.”

Wow – weren’t those tax cuts for the rich supposed to turn the US economy into a recession-recovering wonderland? Here’s a tip to readers who have yet to pick up on this: the Bush administration is slowly sending States as broke as it can, from unfunded mandates to unfunded Orange Alerts. When the Federal Government is the only branch able to afford to govern, its abrogation of previously-separated powers will be complete.

So. The next time you are forced to pay some stupid, outrageous money for something that makes no sense, just remember. States, cities and townships are being landed with more of the work and less of the money, that’s why. Enjoy that cut in your income tax, if you make enough money to get one of any significance.

But back to speeding. People in Australia and the UK, certainly, are often moved to violence over the issue of speed-cameras. The argument is that they are used for revenue-raising. As a non-motorist (and, more importantly, as a law-abider) I am unsympathetic. You simply cannot be angry over the penalty (known) for breaking a law (also known).

Where the argument has merit, however, is this: if speed-cameras primary purpose was preventing people from speeding, it is not the fine that needs to change, it is the number of cameras. If every inch of road was covered, such that the probability of getting caught, if you speed, became 100%, would you speed? No. Motorists speed not because they don’t care about the penalty, but because they believe they will not be caught. The incentive that works is the risk, not the penalty. Remove that change, and the problem is solved. It is the fact that speed-cameras are limited in number that demonstrates revenue-raising is at least a secondary motive for their use.

If nothing else, at least the state of Virginia is being frankly honest about it. Here is another question: allowing that the state needs the money (we can have that argument another time, if you like), would you prefer it came on land-rates, cuts in health insurance, etc.? Or from people who are breaking the law and endangering human life (and state infrastructure, both of which ought to be precious to you)? The downside is that if it is successful in reducing speeding, another policy immediately becomes important. The problem is the Faustian (of sorts) bargain the state makes – does it want money, or safety? Is it implying that it will accept motorists risking the lives of citizens, if they’re prepared to pay a bribe to the state to do so?

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