Taxes are taxes; fees are fees; and Jindal has held to his pledge

One of the great tragedies of modern discourse and argumentation has been the devaluation of meanings to words. Those trying to gain rhetorical advantage use words in ways to convey some intended impression that does not comport with their actual definitions. A reporter’s recent opinion piece reviews – and to some degree echoes – the phenomenon as it relates to debate over Louisiana’s budget for next fiscal year.

For differing reasons, participants in the policy-making process as diverse as liberal Democrats to conservative commentators have a desperate need it seems to make it appear Gov. Bobby Jindal lacks fidelity on his pledge not to raise “taxes” in any form and plays word games related to the concept. Thus, they claim one or both of increasing fees and increasing tuition at public colleges constitutes a “tax increase,” and/or removing an existing tax exemption is not a “tax increase.”

To assess these claims, we first must understand the terms involved in their uncorrupted forms. A “tax” is a charge levied by government upon a certain active or passive behavior for the purpose of funding government activity. For example, in Louisiana when a sale of goods or service occurs, under most conditions the state levies a four percent surcharge of the value of the sale. The state also charges 20 cents per gallon on gasoline sold at retail, and local governments charge varying millage rates for the passive activity of holding property, subject to some exemptions.

By contrast, a “fee” is a charge for the performance of a specific service by government to a specific user who pays it where the fee’s basis is reasonably related to the cost of the service involved. For example, annually vehicles face inspection, in most parishes costing $10. This presumably covers the costs to the entity, in most parishes done by the private sector, for performing the specific service for that individual. “Tuition” is a special form of a fee, where the state educational agency contracts with students to perform a service over a period of time, with varying costs depending upon the amount contracted for by the client.

Two obvious differences between a tax and a fee emerge from a proper understanding of these terms. First, taxes are involuntary as opposed to fees. Nobody is putting a gun to the head of students to make them pay tuition and fees to attend a Louisiana public college, especially as they have choices to attend private and proprietary schools in state, or to go out of state, to have this service performed for them. Neither does the state compel you to own a vehicle that you must have inspected yearly; nor does local government force you to own property. Accessing these state services is not compulsory under law; you don’t have to attend higher education institutions in the state, nor do you have to own a car in the state that you wish to operate.

Second, taxes do not involve activities that are a reasonably direct trade of payment for specific service. Most of them are applied to general activities of government that bear no relationship at all to the behavior being taxed, and even where there is some tenuous connection there is no direct exchange of fee for service. For example, four cents of the gasoline tax is supposed to be spent on 16 major projects, 14 of which directly address surface transportation, but its charging does not grant any service at all, much less any dealing with vehicles, directly to the payers.

Thus, an increase in tuition is not a tax increase. But an increase in tobacco taxes is, because it is levied on an activity – sale of tobacco products – where the state provides no service in return to the payer and the payer has no choice but to pay it.

Where obfuscators try to confuse the issue is in refusing to acknowledge that the activity – the purchase of cigarettes – has nothing to do with an activity performed by government. Nor does it involve any exchange of a service for that surcharge directly to the purchaser.

While you may “choose” to buy cigarettes as you “choose” to go to college, the crucial distinction is in the provision of direct service. Without that provision, the surcharge by government becomes involuntary because it has nothing to do with the actual activity, much less delivering a specific service to a specific person.

By the same logic, removing a tax exemption is a tax increase. If a behavior is being used to draw revenues into government under the definition above, those entities impacted by the removal of an exemption have clearly suffered a tax increase.

Jindal is entirely correct when he states he will resist yanking any such exemptions because this would be a tax increase. He is also correct when he states he has been and will continue to be against tax increases generally, while making no such pledges regarding fees.

Of course, one can use all the reason and logic in the world on some individuals, and they will continue to pervert rhetoric for their own political purposes. When they claim Jindal acts dishonestly on the “taxes” issue and ought to know better, they should instead look in a mirror.

Jeffrey Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University, Shreveport. The original version of this article first appeared on Sadow’s blog, “Between the Lines.”