While Americans may never underestimate the verbal ingenuity of politicians, they had better be prepared for the acrobatics of taxes that aren't taxes.
"Tax" is a bad word. Not only does it cost votes, but it leads directly to other uunpleasant images, including overspending, bureaucracy, waste, pork barrel and favoritism.But it is a very necessary word too, since the very candidates for office who rail against taxes would hardly know what to do without them, since most of their proposals involve expenditures of some sort.
Be prepared, therefore, for more user fees, revenue enhancers, mandated benefits, earmarking and other techniques for squeezing more out of the private sector without recourse to the nasty T word.
It already is happening. Those frenzied debates over postal rates, for instance, have been cooled by turning over the increases to a semi-private entity, where actions are much better shielded from public attention.
Earmarking, or special levies on special groups for special purposes, is likely to become common. In fact, John Hanly Adams of the Tax Foundation suggests it will become a highly practiced art if voters don't cry out.
Such tax boosts often can be hidden behind the name of a program, he says. "Thus a tax increase on parents to finance child care should be called an `education premium,' " he says. And national health insurance, seriously discussed lately, could be financed with premiums similar to those on Medicare.
The technique of mandated benefits would shift from government onto employers certain new services that once might have required a tax increase. Health insurance for part-time workers and dependents, for example.
Revenue enhancers, already being employed, take various forms: User fees, such as charges paid by users of Coast Guard services, is one example.
Another is to charge for forms used in meeting federal regulations. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, charges fees for private rulings on tax questions, including computations for individuals' retirement annuities.
The search for non-tax taxes is intense and pervasive. Adams makes this classic observation:
"Many tax initiatives are conceived in secrecy, drafted into legislation without public hearings, passed with little or no debate, and then buried in lengthy, complex legislation on other topics such as trade rules and massive appropriations bills."
What do you think of this non-tax tax idea now floating around Congress: Index federal excise taxes on gasoline and other products so they could rise automatically and without publicity.
One of the goals of such ideas, of course, is to give the appearance of stable taxes while simultaneously raising them. It is a politically ingenious idea, since it gets everyone off the hook - except the taxpayer.