28 February 2018

The Tax Is Unfair? Tax 'Em All!

I suppose I should thank my lucky stars that Donald Trump, a.k.a. El Cheeto Grande, is President.  Almost every day, he manages to say or do something that proves me right.  And I like being right.

Well, sometimes, anyway.

One notion of mine that Ein Trumpf manages to confirm on an almost daily basis is this:  There is no idea or policy so bad that a politician, or some public figure, won't double down on it.

Oregon's bike tax is a case in point.  The Beaver State's Legislature voted for it in July.  One of the bill's authors, state Senator Lee Beyer, said that the tax would ensure that cyclists "have skin in the game", apparently ignorant of the fact that we pay the same taxes that everyone else does.  And US Congressman and fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer claimed that the tax would "raise the profile of cycling," whatever that means.

The rationale for the tax is based on faulty logic and some notions that are just plain wrong.  For one, the tax was supposed to apply to bicycles costing $500 or more because they are "luxury" items.  For someone who commutes or makes deliveries every day, such a machine is not a "luxury", and $500 is about what such a person would have to spend for a new bike that's reliable and durable.  If that wasn't bad enough, before the bill was approved, the threshold was lowered to $200.

Worse, it applies to bikes with wheels 26 inches or more in diameter because they are "adult" bikes. Never mind that some good bikes for adults, as well as most folding bikes (which many commuters use) have smaller wheels.  

So, instead of realizing how arbitrary their distinctions-- and how unfair and ineffective the tax-- would be, a state Legislative committee wants to do away with 26 inch lower limit but keep the $200 threshold.  But, just as there are adult bikes with wheels smaller than 26 inches, some kids' bikes cost well north of $200.  

Tax me if you can!

Even worse, to my mind, than any ignorant or misguided definition "luxury" or "adult-sized" is the stipulation that the tax will  be used to help improve and maintain the state's
"bicycle infrastructure" system.  Now, whenever I hear that phrase, I'm skeptical:  What do they mean by it?  Bike lanes and paths?  I've seen too many that are so poorly-designed,-constructed and -maintained to think "More are better!" Bicycle safety classes?  If so, for whom?  Drivers?  Kids?  

As I said previously, cyclists are paying the same taxes as everyone else.  That includes gasoline tax:  In states like Oregon, nearly all cyclists are also drivers, or at least car owners.  The taxes (and I'm not only talking about the ones for petrol) everyone pays are supposed to help improve and maintain the transportation system--of which the "bicycle infrastructure" (the paths and lanes, anyway) are a part.  If the "infrastructure" were conceived by engineers and other professionals who are cyclists, I might not mind paying more.  But if a new tax is only going to buy more of the same, I'm against it.  

Moreover, as left-ish as I am, I still retain some of my youthful libertarian skepticism and cynicism about what the government will actually do once it gets the money.  Will it be siphoned off into something other than its stated purpose?  Will some politician's pet project be classified as cycling or transportation "infrastructure" so it can receive some of the tax revenue?

If there is no idea or policy so bad that someone with power won't double down on it, there isn't a project so poorly conceived or simply wasteful that someone doesn't want to throw more money at it.  And, of course, such people would never pay for such a project themselves:  They will tax someone else for the privilege.


  1. Will it be like the money that was supposed to go to the school systems from state lotteries? How much of that money actually makes it to schools? In Illinois where I live it ain't much. I sure it's the same in other states too. If there's one thing a politician can't bear it's an unmolested pile of cash.

  2. Phillip--I have the same question. Our situation in NY is similar to the one you describe in Illinois: The lottery revenue is supposed to go to schools, but not much of it does.

    "If there's one thing a politician can't bear it's an unmolested pile of cash." I couldn't have said it any better.

  3. No different in VA...the state lottery was supposed to be a windfall for schools, but schools are only getting a token fraction of the proceeds. A luxury tax on bicycles is akin to some states' (such as Ohio's) laws that require registration of kayaks as watercraft. The rationale is that kayakers benefit from waterway maintenance...seriously? I can launch my kayak in less than one half foot of water depth, the dredging of channels and construction of commercial port amenities for deep-draft vessels provide absolutely zero benefit to me as a kayaker.

  4. Justine, I live in Colorado Springs where we've had a $4 per new bike excise tax since 1988, with the revenues set aside for bike-related projects (unlike general sales tax), and it has been a great success, providing a guaranteed annual source of funding for cycling infrastructure regardless of what happens to rest of the city's finances. I've worked in bike shops here and the small (trifling, really) addition to the cost of bikes isn't enough to put anyone off making a purchase, and pointing out 'the only good tax' on a customer's receipt always gets a grin and sends a positive message about our city's commitment to cycle infra. So with that background, I'd suggest that there's good reason to be hopeful that Oregon's law may well produce good results for them.

  5. David--That kayak tax sounds like taxing a Swiss Army knife to fund the development of military weapons. Sadly, I'm not surprised to hear about such a thing.

    David--Thank you for sharing that experience. I was unaware of the tax in Colorado Springs. It's one I actually wouldn't mind paying: It's less than Oregon's tax and I imagine that it's easier to hold a city like CS than a state to its promises.

    Let's see what happens in Oregon. I'm willing to change my mind.