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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Paying More in Pittsburgh

Residents of Allegheny County, the Penn. county that contains Pittsburgh, are facing a quick and somewhat sneaky shot at imposing a 10% "poured drink" tax to fund public transit. What's really irksome about this is that it's coming from the State legislature, in the form of an "enabling bill" that will allow the county to impose these taxes (there is also "enablement" for a real estate transfer tax (don't move to Pittsburgh, it'll cost ya!), and for a rental car tax: hey, why not soak tourists and visiting businessfolks all you can, throw in a big lodging tax, too!).

I am not against public transit. I'm not nuts about property taxes, either, which the politicians claim is the only alternative open to the county. But you know, I'll be dipped if I can see why the only choices for improvements to Pittsburgh's public transit system are either having the entire state pay for it -- as in, what the hell benefit do I get from improvements to Pittsburgh's public transit system -- or shoving the burden onto Pittsburgh's drinkers. What, folks going to bars and restaurants are the only ones using public transit?

And don't be buffaloed by the bloviating of Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald, who said in the Post-Gazette that the tax may not even be enacted by the county, or that being against this bill was being against home rule for Allegheny County. That's ridiculous. If you're against unfair, booze-based taxation, you're against this bill. Why wait until it's in the hands of the county council, kill it now.

Like I always say about booze taxes: we pay enough now. If a government service is of benefit to the entire public -- and I think public transit is, if only because it gets cars off the road -- then the entire public should pay for it. Excise taxes are always a bad idea. Why not a bill to enable an extra 1% of sales tax for Allegheny County? Then everyone pays. This is a bad idea, an unfair idea. If you live in Pennsylvania -- anywhere in Pennsylvania -- do like I did and contact your state Senator and Representative today and let them know that you're for fair taxation, and that you're against the legislature represented by House Bill 1629.


Jeff Bearer said...

Thanks for the Heads up Lew. and BTW Allegheny County already has a 7% sales tas.

Lew Bryson said...

Thanks for the info on the sales tax, Jeff...what the heck are they wasting that on? Sounds like this is a matter of priorities.

Anonymous said...

The extra percent in Allegheny County is described in the link on my name. (Note that it includes paying for stadiums.)

Unknown said...

Maybe taxing gasoline to fuel (sorry) the public transit system would have a more balanced approach - and drive (sorry again!) us closer to the whole point of public trans... getting cars off the roads!

Anonymous said...

Well, I have to say that no one wants to pay taxes, especially for things on which they like to spend their money. Any tax that is proposed will no doubt have a trade association opposing it (Restaurant Assoc., Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Telcos, Hotels & Tourism, etc.), decrying it as unfair and devastating to their industry. Perhaps the restaurant and tavern industry in Allegheny County should take a more mature role than saying "not it", and negotiate the tax down to something more reasonable, say 3%. The burden could then be spread to other luxury sectors such as clothing. I would wager that customers would not even notice such a price increase, seeing that it is approximately the same as inflation.

Incidentally, Jerry's link is for the 1% Allegheny County RAD (Regional Asset District) Tax, which is levied above and beyond the state's 6% sales tax.

Lew Bryson said...

I am opposed to this tax because it is levied on one particular thing, for no reason other than that it's a way to make money without taxing everyone. What is the link between per-drink taxation and public transit? If public transit is good for everyone, everyone should pay: add'l local sales tax or a city wage tax. If anyone's going to take a more "mature" approach to raising revenue, why not the various governmental bodies involved? Don't tax the easy targets: tax fairly.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Lew,

Last time I stayed overnite in Pittsburgh I learned about their 50% parking tax. That's not a typo, it's the highest in the country. They need to show some restraint.

Anonymous said...

(Sorry for the long absence, I had lost this URL for awhile, and was inspired after seeing Cap'n Casey of CBW on the cover of the Pgh Biz Times today.)

Lew, I certainly understand your position. Some might say that it makes the most sense for either those who use a service/product to bear the weight, or for society to bear the weight equally. In the case of public transit, the users surely shouldn't be burdened with the costs, as fares would increase by 300-500% for a service that is a form of welfare for many people. Do you tax those who aren't using public transportation, eg. motorists, with gas, registration, and licensing taxes, as a form of punishment? Or do you let public transit wither away as it is not essential to your demographic? No one can come up with a good answer for who should pay for PT. In the light of recent infrastructure failures, who should pay for other types of infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, sewers, locks & dams, levies & dikes and rail ? Industry? Developers? Homeowners? The very wealthy?

Which brings us to the "everybody tax". How exactly do you tax everybody? Income tax? Sales Tax? Property tax? Occupancy tax? You will find that in every case, some group is not paying their "share".

From the point of view of who should be taxed, alcoholic beverages fall in to the category of luxury products, and thus presume that people who are purchasing them have dispensable income. Why shouldn't those who have this dispensable income shoulder the burden of Pub Trans, perhaps along with those who purchase other luxuries, such as tobacco and various forms of gambling? (As an aside, check out this website for similar indignance about tobacco taxation

Does the restaurant industry really believe that consumers will stop consuming addictive beverages because of a 10% tax? Cigarette taxes have shown us that smoking has withstood up to 200% taxation, (
and still going strong. It seems like pure myopia and self-interest to believe that the industry would be devastated by such a tax. As I said in my previous post, any tax will raise an uproar from the afflicted trade association, but the true litmus test is whether those beyond the trade group cry foul. If I walked into a bar and was quoted a price $0.50 more that I was yesterday, do you really believe I would walk out? I think not.

Lew Bryson said...

Couldn't disagree with you more, Andrew. Let me tell you why.

First, beer is hardly a luxury item. In fact, in most states, it's groceries. If you're going to say dining out is a luxury, having a drink in a bar is a's a damned short step to saying that going to the movies is a luxury, using an ATM is a luxury, having your hair done is a luxury, having a cellphone is a luxury, and so on, and just slap a tax on that. WHO SAYS it's a luxury? Usually people who don't drink it. That's fair. Realistically, any tax on "luxury items" is just fancy talk for "you've got money, let's have it."

Second, I would say that everyone benefits from pubtrans, and that's who should be paying for it: everyone. Fewer cars on the road, less pollution, more jobs, more social interaction, fergodssake, it's got all kinds of benefits, and all for the public weal. If it's so good for everyone -- and it is -- why shouldn't everyone shoulder it?

Therefore, third...sales taxes and income taxes DO tax pretty much everyone. Maybe not 100% fairly or evenly, but more fairly and evenly than most other taxes. Why not bump them up to cover it?

Finally, yes, I would continue to pay. But if my income taxes went up, I'd continue to pay that, too. Your last argument is specious. Prices go up all the time. That doesn't mean the government has to jigger the price of a few things because it's more politically expedient than doing the right thing.