Fees semantics reveals politics

Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words? Tax debate is more about ambition than policy.

Through the fog of budget debate in the Minnesota House and Senate, Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered up a budget he said would end a long standoff. The budget is a pretty standard tit-for-tat proposal except for an

interesting battle about definitions of the words “tax” and “fee,” which offers an interesting compromise of another kind.

In focus is the 75-cent-per-cigarette-pack cost increase that Pawlenty has deemed the “Health Impact Fee.” In any other year previous, politicians would eventually admit the fee is indeed a tax. Yet, in a year when Pawlenty stubbornly sticks to a no-new-tax pledge, signed at the behest of radical-minded conservatives, including the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, semantics take center stage.

Pawlenty baldly admits the charades game that both parties are playing. He calls it a user fee. Some call it a tax. He has emphasized that he also calls it a compromise. To an extent, this is true, and it is about time.

The compromise being this: Pawlenty will allow some revenue to be raised by raising costs, as long as none are labeled taxes. Clearly, the governor finally sees the foolishness of signing the no-new-taxes pact and is looking for loopholes.

Pawlenty should be more imaginative to propose a gas “fee” of maybe a dime or more to help raise money for transportation. There are other possibilities. “Gambler’s fees,” for example. Nobody likes the word “toll” either, thus, a chance for “driver’s fees.” Perhaps, instead of levying fines for polluters, “environmental-usage fees.”

Pawlenty cannot be blamed for protecting his political bum. After all, he has some great examples from the Bush administration and its numerous positive-spin campaigns, i.e. the Healthy Forests and Clear Skies initiatives. The rumor is Pawlenty plans to play the hazy notes of this fiddle

all the way to Washington. From the looks of things, the majority of Minnesotans understand that besides the name, there is no difference between the governor’s fee and a traditional tax. Hopefully, the rest of the country can do the same.