The power to tax sin is one of the most treasured uses of government. We see it again in a state budget that finds soda pop taxable, linked in the minds of budget writers and editorialists...

Share story

The power to tax sin is one of the most treasured uses of government.

We see it again in a state budget that finds soda pop taxable, linked in the minds of budget writers and editorialists to the nation’s abundance of obesity. A tax is justified if something is bad for you, and tax reductions are sought if something is considered good for you — like Boeing.
During an editorial staff meeting at The Seattle Times last week, Gov. Gary Locke talked about finishing a home project at “midnight or 1 a.m. and having a can of Pepsi” to perk him up. He understood, he said, the lure of soda pop at midnight. Several people around the table looked horrified. The governor, who has not gained an iota of fat in eight years of gubernatorial dinners and must wear a 28-inch belt size, voiced the general concerns about obesity in children and adults that have become as ubiquitous as elevator music.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

A tax on discretion, for that is what it is, would reap the state about $500 million a year in badly needed revenue. Tied to a general “beverage tax,” the revenue would single out higher taxes on pop, beer, wine and hard liquor, the liquids of sin. A tax on the wholesale price of pop and beer would add about a nickel to the beverage of choice. That’s not a lot, but a single tax never is, and it stays forever.

Sin is a potent symbol for taxing minds. It provides a nice balance to the government’s request for more money. It says by making those who reach for that bottle of Rebel Yell pay, we exact both revenue and retribution for their pleasure. Taxation of tobacco has reached new heights in Washington because tobacco money — and the sin settlement the tobacco companies paid — has become a fungible reserve the state can tap like a keg to balance the budget.

Other sin taxes abound. The Seattle latte tax of a few years ago failed but it was clearly a sin tax. It was designed to tax the pleasure of morning latte to pay for child care. Seattle’s Monorail Authority taxes automobile ownership — nearly a sin in some neighborhoods of Seattle and considered by voters a taxable excess when people have several, new cars.

The federal government tried a tax on yachts a few years ago but it just drove the ship-building industry overseas — sin can always find a new home. And currently, we are considering joining other states to reap the sales tax on purchases made through catalogs and the Internet. That’s a fairness issue that allows retribution against those who buy something out of state and sinfully do not report themselves. This is called “streamlining” the tax system.

Look, the state needs the money and there’s nowhere else to go. Citizen’s initiatives have seen tax revenue possibilities and cut them off at the pass. A limit on the property tax to 1 percent has reduced the annual increases to a minimum in the face of rising government costs for health coverage, wages and basic services. While folks are generous at the polls for local taxes, voters have not been happy with gas taxes, income tax ideas and regional taxes for transportation.

For state government, looking into the face of voter skepticism of new taxes, the question becomes how many more sins do we have in us. In King County, we currently add to the sales tax for car rentals, hotel and motel costs — in effect, a sin tax on conventions. That’s to pay for two stadiums. The newest idea, to “redirect” the convention tax to a new Sonics facility at KeyArena after the other ballparks are paid off, only confirms no tax ever goes away.

Certainly, the new barrel of sin includes the automobile and how we use it. HOT lanes, asking an extra fee to use a separate lane and avoid congestion, are currently in experimentation. Tolls have a similar framework: they pay for roads but assume a tax on commuting.

Asked if a new tax on wine would harm the state’s booming and beloved viniculture industry, a governor’s staff member replied, “Probably not.” Probably won’t hurt Pepsi, either, if there’s an extra nickel a can. Locke rightly pointed out the cost of soft drinks has dropped considerably in recent years. The stuff is a lot cheaper than milk.

We are in a season of blessings and incandescent light. This is the time of turning away from sin, a least for a little while. Except for sin’s biggest fan, the government.

James F. Vesely’s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com.