Sin Taxes!

The Fort Worth Star Telegram had a nice story on “sin taxes.” In the story, Representative Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) reminded us that “Policy should be about encouraging good behavior.” That’s certainly a good question to ask our students. Is the role of government to make us “good”? Or, is it the less ambitious goal of simply keeping us from preying upon each other? What is the proper role for tax policy?

Of course, none of us really wants to defend those pesky sinners in this case. They make such inviting targets for taxation. One danger of a new sin tax is that it perpetuates the idea we can fund the government by taxing someone else. Playing a shell game with taxes is not going to work. Lotteries, sin taxes, etc make dodging the real issues of taxation a little too easy.

Britney Spears unencumbered by excessive clothing or taxesI’m also  amused by the notion of a tax on “sexually oriented” businesses. If I want to watch a semi-nude woman dance in some venues, I  have to pay what has become known as a “pole tax.” However, if I want to go out and see Britney Spears or similar acts, I will see almost as much skin and hear pretty much the same kind of music and lyrics.

I do not know where to draw the line between art and porn. However, I’m sure I don’t trust elected officials in Texas to tell me if my crush on Holly Hunter crosses the line.

One interesting argument is that sin taxes are really designed to recoup costs these activities create for society. Smoking is linked to illnesses that end up costing society in general. Sexually oriented business have been taxed because they’ve been linked by some to the abuse of women. However, some these links may be weak and there are certainly other causes behind the mistreatment of women. Violent television programming and music would seem to be as great an effect on behavior as those small number of strip clubs. Should  movies in general release be taxed based upon their rating?  Maybe we should tax R-rated movies while giving Disney movies a tax subsidy. Some video games would seem to do much more to promote violence toward women. Should those be taxed as “adult entertainment”? Where should the state draw the line? Can the state effectively draw that line?

Estimates are that the tax on “sexually oriented” business will net about $8 million a year (It’s not clear if that’s before or after the legal fees required to defend the law). That’s a little over 25 cents per Texan. For my two-bits, I’d prefer that the state stay out of the issue altogether.

Update: The New York Times printed an interesting article on the Op-Ed page making the case for legalizing more sins and taxing them to raise revenue. It should be a good conversation starter.

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Perry vs the oppressive Washington government

On April 9 Governor Perry did a press event with other legislators and declared:  “I believe that our federal government has become oppressive. I believe it’s become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens and its interference with the affairs of our state.” Later, his comments hinting at secession triggered a wave of national coverage.

I’m sure that Texans are comforted by the concern about an oppressive  government. It was only two years ago when Texans learned of Perry’s order mandating that their daughters receive the HPV vaccine. Some Texans saw their property seized and handed to powerful economic interest for profitable stadiums and other ventures. Others still worry that family farms and ranches will be taken and handed to private firms that will build toll roads slicing through the Texas countryside. Perry has announced his opposition to local governments taking citizens’ property and continues to rail against the strings attached to federal money to the states.

Ironically, Perry is pretty comfortable taking money from special interests like the Teamsters Union in Washington. A Dallas Morning News story points out that Perry has raise $2.7 million from Washington sources during his years as Governor. It looks like Perry would have a little less trouble selling his Texas indepdence if he were dining more on home cooking.

Update: In a May 17 op-ed pieces, Perry denied that he advocated succession. Of course, this will be debated endless. Clearly, Perry hinted at seccession when he talked about dissolving the union the he said, that “if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.”

The first rumbling of redistricting

Lubbock Online (an extension of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal) has an interesting story on the early stirrings of the House Redistricting Committee.  If you’re like me, you’ve haven’t always been clear about what to tell students about what that committee is doing in the years between the big redistricting battles. As soon as the session is over they get to start doing the groundwork for the next round of redistricting in the hopes of making the process go as smoothly as possible.

Picking judges-2009 Edition

The issue of judicial selection has started getting a little bit of coverage in this session. The Austin-American Statesman ran a story on judicial politics that covered some recent developments in reform.

Reading the comments from readers is always a risky choice. However, I thought it was particularly interesting that so many readers tried to make the case for keeping elections by writing foolish and angry comments. Nothing impresses me more than having someone tell me that I’m dumb as dirt for opposing the partisan election of judges. Perhaps these comments are planted in an effort to convince readers that the average citizen is no better educated or tempered than the governor.

Driving while…

A story in the Dallas Morning News provides a useful update on the status of legislation related to driving and some insights into the Texas mind when it’s behind the wheel.

The issue of cellphone use while driving is best summed up in this quote from Representative Joe Pickett (El Paso): “Our cars are different in Texas. We want to be able to carry guns, spit, chew, call on our cellphones or sharpen our knives while driving. Texas is unique.”

I can’t improve much on that explanation of why Texas has always lagged behind much of the nation on driving laws. However, Rep. Pickett was mistaken on the claim that Texas is only state that was a country. As we point out on page 22 of the book, Vermont was also an independent nation before joining the U.S. Most Texans are not aware of this and the legend of Texas’ independence will have an impact even if it’s not entirely true. Anyway, it’s not clear what the independent status of Texas has to do with state laws on driving while talking on a cell phone.

As the article points out cell phones contributing to more than 13,000 accidents, including 126 deaths, in Texas over the last four years. The issue will not go away. It will give insurance companies another excuse for why Texas has some of the highest rates in the nation. In the meantime, it looks like we’re going to spend another couple of years dodging cell-phone impaired drivers.

5/6/09 Update: The story has gone national with a story on CNN. The case is also featured on  Anderson Cooper’s “AC360” show tonight on CNN.

Same sex marriages

Same Sex Marriages by State

Same Sex Marriages by State

Federalism is messy because states are often allowed to do their own thing and teaching state politics means  keeping up with what  all those states are doing on a host of issues. Stateline.org is a great source for keep up with those changes.

After the latest changes in Iowa, Stateline.org released its update on same sex marriages in the states. They have a map and chart that summarize what states say about who  you are allowed/forbidden from marrying/forming a civil union with. This is handy if you’re teaching a state politics class or planning that special destination wedding to Iowa.

Ellis and Duncan on the shield law

Senators Rodney Ellis (Houston) and Robert Duncan (Lubbock) have a piece in the Corpus Christi Caller explaining the need for what is commonly called a “shield law.”  The “Free Flow of Information Act” (SB 915) would keep reporters from having to reveal sources who spoke to them in confidence. As they point out, 36 states and the District of Columbia already laws protecting journalists and their sources.

Ellis and Duncan also provide a link to www.FreeFlowAct.com which provides some interesting information on the status of shield laws nationally. If you’re looking for a launching point for discussion on press freedom in Texas, this is a great starting point.