Skip to comments.'Loser fees' taking place of new taxes (Surcharges added to tickets, DWIs help fund government)
Posted on 03/06/2006 7:43:08 PM PST by elkfersupper
Chemical plant technician Steven Lozano really got nailed: speeding, an expired inspection sticker, an expired driver's license and dubious proof of insurance.
The cost of his traffic infractions: $675 and a wait in line recently at Houston Municipal Court. What Lozano didn't know few people do is that only about half of the hefty fines had anything to do with his traffic conduct.
The rest were "surcharges." They included money for a prison-guard training institute at Sam Houston State University and money for a juvenile-crime program at Prairie View A&M, among other things.
"A lot of this has nothing to do with me," said Lozano, when shown the list of common surcharges. "Fugitive apprehension? Abused children's counseling?"
No politician wants to raise tax rates. But life's temporary civic losers those with a traffic citation, a DWI conviction or a bail bond to make are an increasingly attractive target of cash-starved governments.
Lozano and everyone else in line that day were paying 21 mandatory fees that now grace the average local traffic citation.
Got a broken taillight? The city of Houston fine is $30. But you'll pay $93 extra in surcharges four to the city and 17 to the state.
Governments often cover the cost of specific services with a "user fee." Call this twist the Loser Fee.
Did you get a parking ticket? By state mandate, the city adds a $5 surcharge that's passed to local school districts for crossing guards. Without it, the money might come from school property taxes.
"This stuff happens all the time, especially in states without income tax. I just call it 'anything-but-taxes,' " said David Brunori, a contributing editor to State Tax Notes and a public policy professor at George Washington University.
In fact, it's very much a tax a compulsory payment that helps fund government. Texas lawmakers have added at least one new surcharge to traffic tickets every legislative session since 1987, according to a Houston Chronicle search of bills, statutes and budget books. This covers a span when both Democrats and Republicans controlled state government.
The state expects to collect nearly $300 million from piggybacking on local traffic tickets this year.
And that figure could double with a new Driver Responsibility Program designed to charge the state's worst drivers a special fee. In that program, first-time drunken drivers are being assessed a surcharge of $3,000.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, created a 50-cent traffic-ticket surcharge, the Prairie View A&M fund, by amending a bill in 1997. He makes no apology.
"That type of funding is used. Period," West said. "Obviously, we have only a finite amount of resources. And so if someone has a great idea, they need to be able to help determine how it's going to be funded."
Funding is certainly a problem in Texas government. The Legislature will meet in special session this spring to consider new revenue sources for public schools as citizen groups demand an end to soaring property taxes.
To raise money, governments often rely on user fees for everything from building permits to zoo admissions. And Texas extracts professional license fees from everyone from athletics trainers to water-well drillers.
But no matter how attractive as a tax alternative, all such fees have market and political limits.
Even "sin taxes," such as the 41 cents Texas collects from each pack of cigarettes, have maximums. If they go too high, smugglers move in with tax-free contraband or people buy in a neighboring state.
Thus, the newest alternative loser fees, Brunori said.
"What has happened in the last 10 years is a proliferation of cities and counties and states using fines and civil penalties, although they won't admit it's for general revenue," he said.
Many fees are tied loosely to the crime or misdemeanor committed, Brunori said. One $3 traffic-ticket surcharge in Houston, for instance, goes to Municipal Court building security, and another $4 fee goes to the court computer system.
But every building owned by the city of Houston has security and computers, supported by the city's general tax fund. When Municipal Court gets money from surcharges, the general fund dollars that would have been spent on court costs are freed for another part of government to expand.
Some surcharges are even stealthier. Texas has one on local traffic tickets called "comprehensive rehabilitation," dedicated to the Texas Rehabilitation Commission.
A closer look shows that, by law, only the first $500,000 collected statewide each year goes to the commission. The rest goes to the state's general fund.
The rehabilitation surcharge is expected to collect $10.7 million this year, so that means $10.2 million goes into the state pool.
The same is true of the "judicial and court personnel training fund." The first $500,000 goes to the Court of Criminal Appeals; the next $9.9 million will go to the general fund.
Create headaches The "State Traffic Fee" has a slightly different hitch. Enacted by the Legislature in 2003 at a whopping $30 surcharge per traffic ticket, it is advertised as going to a state transportation fund to allow the state to issue road-construction bonds instead of raising the gas tax.
But the money doesn't really go to that fund, because the law says two-thirds of the first $250 million each year must go to the state general fund and one-third to local trauma centers. This year, the state comptroller expects to collect only $90 million.
That leaves zero for the transportation fund.
Such hidden state charges on local traffic tickets create headaches for local government officials who don't like raising cash on the backs of traffic violators, fearing residents will perceive police as revenue collectors, not safety enforcers.
In 2005, Houston collected and kept $21 million from fines for moving violations. But $24 million in surcharges was added on top of that by the state. The city kept $6 million. The state coffers got $18 million.
"In Texas, we've got to come up with revenue somehow. All the easy means are gone," said Michael Granof, a University of Texas accounting professor.
He recalled a candidate in his neighborhood who announced, "I'm going to spend more on education and cut taxes."
"Great!" Granof said, spending more and collecting less is what gets us into trouble.
Loser fees usually are based on the twin justification of deterring one activity and compensating society for the negative cost of it, said George Zodrow, a Rice University economics professor. For instance, the state can say its new $30 traffic fee deters speeding at the same time as it compensates trauma centers that serve auto-accident victims a societal cost of bad driving.
Another example: Officials say the cigarette tax helps deter smoking and covers costs to society caused by smoking. Never mind studies that suggest smokers save society money by dying more than a dozen years early, before they linger with geriatric conditions and collect too much Social Security, Zodrow said.
The tax collects more than $400 million per year.
'Happy to oblige'
Sometimes loser fees can reach too far. In December, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled against a new $30 surcharge on divorce filings. Half the money was supposed to go to a state child-abuse fund, but Abbott said the state constitution requires court filing fees to be directly related to judicial costs, in order not to deter low-income filers.
A new $37 fee on all civil court filings is OK, however, because it goes to pay raises for judges, which is a judicial cost. (It also indirectly raises the pension of state lawmakers, which are pegged on judicial salaries.)
If you happen to be convicted in district court, don't forget the $20 fee for county records management.
And as of 2003, if you get thrown in jail anywhere in Texas, your bail bond will be granted only if you pay an additional $15 toward assistant state prosecutor longevity pay.
If this makes you tired and hungry, watch out.
In the next Legislative session, the House Ways and Means Committee may revive its proposed "snack tax," which would add an extra 3 percent sales tax to junk food and soda pop to fight obesity, of course.
"What Texas is doing is not uncommon," Brunori said. "It all stems from the unwillingness to pay for what the citizens want and unwillingness of the citizens to pay for what they want."
"If you take a poll of people, they all want lots of services and no taxes," he said. "And the politicians are all too happy to oblige."
"an expired inspection sticker, an expired driver's license and dubious proof of insurance. The cost of his traffic infractions: $675 and a wait in line recently at Houston Municipal Court."
He got off easy. For three simultaneous violations in a traffic stop in Georgia you go to jail.
But, if you're in jail, how do you pay the fines?
Like the wise man said: Subsidize what you want more of; tax what you want less of.
After the law goes into effect- We dedicate this new Post Office, Library, School, Hospital etc. brought to you by Senator Ted "hiccup" Kennedy.
ought to ping shelion, too.
Having a Monday over here.
I'm sure the guards made an extra special effort for Shaun. Feel kind of sorry for the guy with the runs the guards were using to fix 'Richy Rich'.
Bet his attitude had something to do with the outcome.
More government, less freedom.
Now there's a classy individual... NOT!
Around here they don't assess all those things if you don't have to go to court. It has been a long time since I got a ticket but I always ask if I can mail the fine.
"Bet his attitude had something to do with the outcome."
But gosh, Shaun (who was my student when I taught high school, later my friend) assured me that none of it was his fault in any way... :)
How about CUTTING SPENDING YOU STUPID F---! What the hell kind of bilingual night school did you buy your PhD at, anywhow?
You're right -- he should consider himself lucky to get away with $600+ in fines. If I had my way, he'd lose his license for a minimum of five years.
But then, how does he work to pay the fines? (which is the object, BTW)
I really don't think you want all of us in prison, or do you?
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