Dedicated taxes are a sensible approach

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2000

Winding its way through the Legislature is House Joint Resolution 5, which would change the state constitution to allow certain taxes to be set aside or ``dedicated'' to related departments and programs.

Specifically, the changes would set aside motor fuel taxes for maintenance of roads, highways and public transportation. In addition, marine fuel taxes would be used for harbors, while ferry passenger fees would be spent on maintaining and operating the ships.

We like this bill. Its intent is for taxes and fees collected from specific programs to be used for those purposes. Of course, one thing to remember is that often times those fees and taxes still won't cover a department's expenses. And that is a concern of Department of Transportation officials, who said such taxes would be far less than operating costs.

However, the Legislature can still add additional money from the overall operating budget to make up the difference. The key here is that users help cover the costs of the programs they use, and taxes and fees generated from those areas are in turn put back into that specific program or department.

The bill still has a long way to go and may not pass this year. It has two more committees in the House before hitting the floor and then starting the process all over again in the Senate. In addition, the state constitution rarely allows ``dedicated'' funds, which means the bill would also have to be approved by voters since it would change the state Constitution.

Another key point of the bill is that if adopted, the Legislature could only spend the tax money for other purposes under a three-fifths vote of both the House and Senate. We also like this measure, as it requires the Legislature to use the money for its intent and it takes a huge majority to change it.

Overall, we hope to see this bill pass. But we also add a bit of caution. In a perfect world, all departments and programs should be self-supporting, but that just isn't possible. Often times these fees and taxes won't cover the full cost of a department or program, and we'd hate to see the Legislature take the stance that these programs - like our roads and ferries - will only get funded through related fees and taxes. That would be a death knell for many such agencies.

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