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In our opinion: Stealth taxes

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Not all taxes are fully disclosed and explained, especially with various assessments and fees levied by government agencies on monthly cellphone service charges.

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We may agree or disagree whether any taxes, or all taxes, are too high, too low or just right. We may accept them or detest them, but one thing is certain, there's no good reason why any tax shouldn't be fully disclosed and explained to the people who pay it.

But that seems to be the case with various assessments and fees levied by government agencies on monthly cellphone service charges. They are obscured in the details of monthly billings, and in Utah they also happen to be relatively high — the 13th highest in the nation, as a matter of fact.

That's according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that has studied the rates at which states and local agencies assess levies on monthly bills for wireless service.

In Utah, the rate of assessment averages about 18.5 percent, which is more than three times the rate the state taxes residents' annual income. Some of the money is earmarked as "fees" to pay for specific services. One such levy, for example, funds Utah's poison control program. But because that program serves to the benefit of people who may not have cellphones, it is technically not a fee, but is indeed a tax, and should be called what it is.

The Tax Foundation report has spurred a pointed reaction from those who believe in greater government transparency. "This is a great example of legislators being very creative at avoiding accountability," says Royce Van Tassell of the Utah Taxpayer's Association. "It should be clear who's paying the tax and what it's going for."

Yes, it should.

And why isn't it? The Tax Foundation suggests that as wireless use has skyrocketed, governments have been unable to resist the lure of a new revenue stream, and have tapped into it in sneaky ways. In many cases, customers are taxed multiple times, by state and local agencies, whose taxing authorities may overlap.

If customers in Utah look closely at their bills, they will see government fingerprints all over the fine print. In Salt Lake County, in addition to the poison control charge, there are levies for city and county sales taxes, fees for 911 emergency services, a municipal license surcharge and something called a "regulatory cost recovery charge."

This is not to say these charges aren't justifiable and wouldn't receive public support, had anyone bothered to ask. That's the problem. These assessments lie in the subterranean universe of incremental additions to the cost of goods and services that pop up in various transactions. They are small enough to avoid attention, but they are contemplated and levied just as broader taxes, only minus the usual public disclosure and opportunity for input. As an economist for the Tax Foundation puts it: "If people aren't paying attention ... it's an effective, stealthy way to extract revenue."

But Americans shouldn't accept a government policy that operates in stealth mode. The foundation report clearly demonstrates a need for more transparency, and a review by the Legislature on just how such charges are assessed and retained would be a good place to start.

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