Time for a Flush Tax

The state of Maryland has just set aside $18.6 million to upgrade two Baltimore sewage treatment plants that are major polluters of the Chesapeake Bay. The source of funds: a “flush tax” — $2.50 a month added to household sewer bills — that is expected to raise $60 million to $70 million per year.

In an editorial today, the Daily Press lauds the Maryland tax for providing a stable, ongoing source of funding for water pollution clean-up efforts. Although Virginia did manage to dedicate $260 million from the budget surplus to one-time projects this year, future contributions are subject to fiscal vagaries.

For once, I agree with the Daily Press. I would add one point to the reasoning proffered by the Daily Press’ pundits: To the greatest extent possible, government services should be put on a “user pays” basis. The Maryland system establishes a direct and rational nexus between those who consume sewage “services” and contribute to pollution, and those who pay to clean up that pollution. Virginia, by contrast, taxes citizens and businesses indiscriminantly.

Furthermore, I would suggest this: Any new tax to clean up the Bay should be offset by a reduction of taxes elsewhere. I don’t believe in adding to Virginia’s tax burden — just restructuring it along the most rational economic lines possible.

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11 responses to “Time for a Flush Tax”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The “flush tax” has some interesting dimensions to it.

    Wouldn’t one presume that the current recipients of water/sewer revenue – mostly the municipal operators already have standards that, in theory, mean that the effluent is already “clean” (enough?).

    So.. my question is what exactly is the target of the added tax?

    I think this is an important question because unless there is a cogent policy .. that money will be collected and not necessarily spent in ways that achieve what folks think it will achieve.

    Then.. I’d throw a little bomb … with respect to Smokestack Mercury Pollution – which any casual reader will easily recognize is a very serious problem … with fish and other critters.. like songbirds and even eagles, etc.

    Why not have a Smokestack Mercury Tax also…?

    In the end.. the “solution” to being more “Green”.. is .. unfortunately for users to fork over more “Green” because the idea that the plant operators – whether they be private or public .. will “eat” the money.. is a no go.. they just pass on the charges to customers.. they have to if they are to remain solvent.

  2. Larry, isn’t this precisely the argument I have made with respect to redidential areas paying their own way? We have set up a system wherein businesses pay a disproportionate share of the costs as if they will eat it, when in fact, they turn around and pass the costs right back to us.

    Coal, like seawater, has minute amounts of nearly everything on the planet in it, including radioactive materials. I have seen it written that because of the massive amounts of material consumed, coal burning plants actually release more radioactivity into the atmosphere than nuclear plants.

    In other words, pick your poison. Conservation is expensive, and when you go beyond a certain level of cleanliness the costs go asymptotic to infinity.

    I think that the situation with the water plants is that there are new regulations concerning the amount of Nitrogen that can be released, where the previous regulations concerned themselves with bacteria and solids. The new regulations require a much higher degree of technology.

    Inasmuch as the flush tax would go to support these new regulations, I can’t see that you can effectively reduce the cost someplace else unless you set some priorities as to what you are willing to enforce and what you are not.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    The General Assembly has already infused hundreds of millions in GF money into the same water quality improvement purposes, so would you reverse course and replace that with a flush tax? Do both? I’m all for user fees, but I don’t understand why this user fee is good but another user fee, the gas tax is bad. Nor do I get why it is bad to rely on GF for water treatment plants, but great to depend on GF for roads. Somebody needs to ‘splain that to me.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    What I find troubling with the flush tax .. is that is seems to be separate from the regs that specify tighter control of nitrogen.

    The environment is no different than VDOT in this regard. Throwing money without performance metrics and accountability is wrong, wrong , wrong… and it’s the absolute core of cost-effectiveness in my view.

    We should not be wasting money on ineffective transportation nor should we be wasting money on ineffective environmental expenditures either.

    re: the “cost” of a clean environment. I believe that you do need to do a cost-benefit but in the case of our on-life-support Bay and Mercury in our Rivers… I think there can be no doubt .. that we are a long, long way from wasting money on minor issues … much less overkill.. we have serious problems that demand change.

    We have fish with open sores and males with eggs and the such… and fish advisories warning people not to eat them… and then arguing whether we mean kids, pregnant women or everyone.

    Even if we did not care about our own health… I think it is scandalous that more than a few of us don’t seem to care what happens to the critters… who live in the rivers and the Bay.

  5. Is that true, Larry? I thought the new nitrogen regs were pretty closely tied to the proposed tax.

    You may be right that throwing money without some perforamnce metrics is silly, you are definitely right about the bay and rivers, so does that mean we can throw money at them without accountbility? How bad do things have to get before you say, do something, anything?

    I’m getting a mixed message here.

    For the record, as an avid sailor I can tell you the Bay is a mess without even getting out my environmental analytical chemisty books. All you have to do is get a face full of that stuff and it even tastes like chemicals. Then, when you read John Smith’s accounts of the Bay, you just want to cry.

  6. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry & Ray,

    Asking for performance metrics in connection with a new fee or tax! You two obviously don’t appreciate the Washington Post way of thinking – anything that raises taxes for Virginians is good in and of itself.

    This new tax might well be a good idea, but I too join you in asking what do we intend to accomplish, how will we measure our progress and how do we know whether we are succeeding?

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: performance metrics

    You’ll find me consistent across the board whether we’re talking about transportation, the environment or schools, et al.

    More money is often NOT the solution and certainly should NEVER be the first proposal if problems are present.

    Can anyone imagine.. the management at Walmart or any other private sector entity.. using such an approach but yet this is exactly the way that many feel when the discussion is about government services.

    Poor school test scores —>>> more money
    Dirty Rivers and Chesapeake Bay —–>>> more money
    “Serious” Congestion/travel delays —–>>> more money
    … pick your favorite… government problem… —->>>>>

    It helps enormously to know WHAT the problem is FIRST before proceeding to step TWO and sometimes Step Two is… a realization .. “Hey, we’re doing this wrong and that’s why it’s not working right”.

    I’m ALL FOR a flush tax… if we have objective and measureable criteria for spending the money … in other words – accountability.

    otherwise.. we’re spending money .. just to be spending money… a dumb but common approach unfortunately

    I mean … GOD Forbid.. we ask the school system or VDOT or environmental folk to actually justify what they are doing… it’s like an insult.. right? 🙂

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    The schools, including higher education, and environmental operations, all of which I strongly support, often do take an attitude that anyone seeking to measure or oversee their performance is somehow opposed to their mission. That attitude needs to change. In all we do, from national defense to transportation to environmental matters, we need to set standards and measure performance against them. If changes are needed, either in the programs or the standards, we can and should change them. We can then fund what works and terminate what doesn’t.

    I never been much of a Mark Warner fan, but I give our former Governor credit on the Standards of Learning. The “let’s measure education performance by what we spend” crowd had high hopes for Warner. They assumed that he’d junk or severely weaken the SOLs. But, to his credit, Warner refused and worked to refine and improve them. The SOLs were hardly perfect when they were initiated and still need work today. But they are improving each year.

    They are also identifying potential problems, such as the big decline in Fairfax County (and others’) math scores. It’s probably too early to pinpoint the exact cause of this problem, but aren’t we better by identifying the problem and working to address it, than by proceeding in ignorance or just throwing more money into the system?

    Let’s set goals for the Bay and measure our progress.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    How about getting more incentives and/or training for installing two stage toilets?

  10. Good one, Anon.

    We have mandated low flush toilets, even where it makes no difference whatever, and even though two stage, (two flush level) toilets are available (at least in other countries, I’ve never seen one here.))

    Menwhile people are buying enormous tubs, extra deep soaking tubs, two person jacuzzi tubs, five head showers, and swimming pools.

    Low flush, HAH! This has got to be the nadir of social engineering.

  11. $2.50 a day, huh? How about if I flush once a week?

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