A taxing debate…

Bob Salladay’s Political Muscle tribute to Max Headroom is welcome, although ironic. The show (one of my all-time favorites) was actually a vicious critique of the media.

My bone to pick with the media today, and more specifically, this LA Times article that Salladay also endorses, is some lack of balance about the Governor’s plan with regard to fees and taxes, and whether his health plan is a change of position for him.

First of all, the Governor has made these statements about his health care views through the re-election campaign. On the first day of the general election, the Governor was quoted on the campaign bus talking about making health care his number one issue. When asked about his opposition to Proposition 72, the requirement on employers to provide for health coverage to their workers, he said he didn’t like the 80-20 split, but would rather be for something like 50-50. He actually said this in 2004, too: (granted, those of us who were campaigning for Prop 72 didn’t take much comfort in this, or even believe him.)

But he’s been somewhat consistent, including through the summer and fall where he said that health reform would require participation by employers, individuals, and government. (As advocates, at times, for both fees and taxes to help unfunded parts of our health system, we certainly faulted him for being vague, but his general direction was clear.)

As for fees, the Governor not only signed a similar provider fee for nursing homes, but he put it in his campaign literature.

I know that rhetorically anything that government does that involves money is often called a “tax,” but you don’t have to read the legal analysis that Daniel Weintraub posted to know that there’s a specific distinction between a “fee” and a “tax”—one that a man-on-the-street will understand.

A tax is broadly based, and goes for broad purposes.

A fee is specific, and provides either a reward or remedy regarding the payor’s actions.


* You pay a fee to enter into a state park, but get the benefit of enjoying that park. The fee goes specifically for the park’s upkeep.

* A paint company pays a fee that goes to lead paint removal. The fee goes specifically to lead paint removal.

* With the Governor’s proposal, only employers who don’t cover their workers (and thus have their workers impose costs on the health system) pay the fee. And they get the direct benefit of a healthier, more stable, and more productive workforce The fee goes specifically to health coverage, not to unrelated expenses.

This is more than a semantic distinction, both in terms of indicating the narrowness of impact, but also because of legislative rules: a fee only requires a majority vote; a tax requires a two-thirds (and thus significant Republican legislative support) to pass.

So let’s be clear that it’s not just political spin: there’s law and common sense behind the difference between a fee and a tax. Too bad the article didn’t explain that.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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