Missouri voters will hear a lot about “user fees” this summer. Opponents of a 3/4-cent transportation sales tax on the August ballot will say only people using roads and bridges should pay to fix them, not all taxpayers.
User fees have a certain appeal. Golfers should pay for a round at a municipal course, we believe. Swimmers should pay for the pool.
But user fees are complicated. Asking the bar owner to pay for liquor control seems to makes sense, but he or she will simply add the cost to your tab. The owner’s user fee is your hidden tax.
Raise highway tolls or the gas tax and travelers will pay — but so will anyone who buys truck-delivered food or furniture. Merchants will simply pass their fees to you.
More broadly, user fees distort the debate over what is and isn’t a public benefit. Kansas Citians who never ride the bus, for example, pay a sales tax for mass transit.
Perhaps you believe those who use the bus should pay for it.
Few riders could afford the full cost, and the bus service would probably shut down. That affects everyone. Streets and sidewalks would be more crowded, pollution higher, labor less efficient.
Arguably, everyone benefits from the bus service, even those who never “use” it. That implies everyone should pay part of the cost.
Who “uses” a public park? Just the people who picnic there — or all of us living in a greener community? Is the public library just for book lovers — or a smarter, more prosperous city?
The dilemma is clearest when it comes to public schools. Thousands of Kansas Citians live in childless homes, but they pay taxes to support schools and benefit from a well-educated citizenry. Asking only “users” to pay for education would break that social contract.
Now let’s be clear: User fees are complicated in both directions. Asking non-users to pay for the bus seems OK, but general subsidies for a fixed-route streetcar is a tougher call. So are subsidies for stadiums and arenas.
Isn’t a healthy airport as important as the public library? If so, why should taxpayers support one and not the other?
By the way — since I pay for your books, shouldn’t you pay for my flight?
Informed Missouri voters will have to figure this out. Better roads and bridges are either a public good everyone should pay for or specific improvements meaningful only to drivers and tourists.
Decide which side you’re on and you’re on your way to understanding how to cast your ballot.