In state legislatures around the country, including Pennsylvania's, ferocious battles are being fought over taxes. Legislators oppose them tooth and nail or apologetically maintain that they can't be avoided.
One kind of tax hike, however, has passed under the public radar. This "curb tax," built around ticketing for parking, is soaring in cities and towns around the country.
In Philadelphia, with its own parking-based cable-TV series and deep well of urban parking legends, it's easy to think ticketing and "booting" are more pervasive, aggressive, and likely to generate odd consequences than they are anywhere else. Actually, though, we're pretty much in keeping with national norms, and even kinder in certain respects.
In New York recently, a slew of tickets were placed on a vehicle in which a dead man was slumped over the steering wheel. In Toledo, Ohio, cars can get tickets in the owner's driveway if it's gravel rather than paved. And while only government agents can ticket in our fair city, Houston gives private citizens that power - producing a predicable crop of Rambo-esque ticket-slingers.
Bizarre and occasionally grotesque stories such as these make aggressive ticketing seem like a smutty joke that you shouldn't find funny, but somehow do. They rarely foster the notion that the issue is worthy of serious policy debate. But it is.
For local governments, the curb tax isn't chump change. Last year, just two cities, New York and Washington, collected a total of more than $649 million in ticket fines. Chicago has leased its metering and ticketing rights to a private firm for $1.2 billion. Nationwide, tickets are a multibillion-dollar burden on motorists.
What's wrong with that? some might ask. Parking has to be regulated to ensure turnover of limited spaces. Cities and towns need revenue. Ticketing helps achieve both goals.
But the problem here is the way parking systems are administered and the lack of checks on abuse. One way to understand what's happening is to compare it to credit card policies. Like curbside parking, credit cards are a convenience for which someone deserves to earn some money. But after Congress and the courts removed limits on interest rates, fees, and fines, credit cards began to look a lot like predatory lending. Competitive pressures that were supposed to limit abuses didn't.
With parking tickets, similarly valid enforcement measures started generating big bucks for local governments. With some adjustments to regulations, high-tech meters, and stricter enforcement, even bigger bucks were generated.
Mechanisms that are supposed to check ticketing excesses and abuses have proven about as effective as the free market was at limiting credit card abuses. Ask yourself: Has a state legislator ever lost his job because he voted to increase parking fines by $10? Has a mayor ever been voted out of office for allowing ticketing during previously free night or weekend hours?
There is no effective check on curb taxes right now. And there are many incentives for local officials to increase them, easy mechanisms for doing so, and little or no political repercussions.
In Philadelphia, as in many parts of the country, traditional sources of local revenue are drying up. Less money is coming into government coffers from property and sales taxes, and less aid is coming from hard-pressed states. Regulation-based levies such as the curb tax are increasingly being used to fill the gaps.
Is this a bad thing? Is taxing motorists more via ticketing to fund local schools wrong? Do higher curb-tax collections hurt neighborhood merchants more or less than larger sales taxes? Questions like this should be asked about metering and ticketing. And maybe they would be, if government officials would stop pretending parking systems aren't rigged to increase the ticketing take.