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Revenue Alfresco Might Be Just the Beginning:

Ask the governor of Wisconsin (tell him you’re one of the Koch brothers), he’ll tell you the money has to come from somewhere. So it’s not surprising that searches for sources of additional revenue by states and even our own city are taking on a level of… creativity, one might say.

On Feb. 22 the Santa Monica City Council directed staff to look into implementing adjustments of the fees paid by restaurants to the City for the use of public sidewalk space for outdoor dining.

Maybe you never gave this much thought, but yeah… you can’t just set a table and chairs out front of your café and start feeding people. You have to pay for that sidewalk space. Apparently, the City is pricing its sidewalk space lower than “market rates” and restaurants might end up paying an increase of $1.90 over the current rates. According to a report by the Santa Monica Mirror’s Parimal M. Rohit the increases would result in about $200,000 in additional revenue to the City. So, it could help.

There’s nothing alarming about the move, especially as the City is so far considering waiting two years to implement these fees depending on the state of the economy. If things get worse, they’d back off to keep from hurting restaurant business. And eating outdoors might not have the same appeal if there are soup lines in view of your table.

But raising sidewalk fees highlights the longer reach that governments have in looking for revenue. Because of Santa Monica’s comparatively low current rates, and acceptance on the part of restaurant owners that sidewalks are public real estate, there’s a general feeling that raising the use rates would be fair. But we’ll likely hit a sandbar soon. The one that’s lurking; where even creative taxes start hitting with more of a bullying punch.

I guess instead of bullying you might say “cajoling.” Starting May 1 the state of Washington will raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by one dollar. Washington’s Secretary of Health Mary Selecky not only has no problem with it, she’s pumped. Quoting her from a press release: “Quitting smoking improves a person’s health within hours, and saves money, too. A pack-a-day smoker who quits will save nearly $2,500 a year. Our Tobacco Quit Line is there to help.”

Washington state officials estimate that as many as 19,000 people will quit smoking because of the rise in cost. At one point they cite a saving of more than $854 million in health care costs. All of that is fantastic and good. What is never mentioned in the Washington State press release is the amount of revenue, say in the first year, that the state will realize by taxing people who are technically and medically drug addicts. Our own state actually brought to a vote the question of whether we should legalize marijuana so that we could get tasty tax revenue realized to some extent – no matter what you tell me – from stoned teenagers. And by that I mean, our children.

States needing revenue have turned to gaming, state lotteries, “Powerball” jackpots so powerfully big that Gandhi would have trouble resisting buying a ticket, and “scratchers” that are dispensed like colorful candy from under glass countertops in convenience stores. And why not? Gambling is fun. Having just returned from a business trip to Reno, Nevada I can speak with some conviction on the topic of “gaming” and fun. The people who sit at slot machines aren’t smiling. There’s something going on, but their eyes hardly seem lit-up with the spark of “fun.” Hopefully Nevada also realizes revenue on liquor and cigarettes, because there’s a lot of that going during the gambling – uh, gaming.

Our own sunny oceanside city isn’t even talking about gaming. But I’m wondering what we will talk about when the time comes. There’s a presumption that you can raise something gently like a sidewalk space fee and the best interests of all are served. Of course the restaurant will need to go looking for that money and that will mean an increase in prices. I don’t eat at outdoor tables that often, so I guess I won’t get hurt. As a restaurant owner, your results may vary.

But even Santa Monica won’t remain immune forever to the sting of taxes meant to “cajole” money out of human weakness and dependency. At some point, like the state of Washington, we’ll look at something like solving what is essentially a drug problem with taxation. Or, until everyone has quit smoking, feed off of it. Or control diabetes with soda taxes. Right now I’d be happy if someone could just explain to me how it is that some Santa Monica parking meters charge more than a penny a minute. When did that go through?! Was I out gaming and smoking when the City decided that our curbs were worth more than a penny a minute? Oh, wait. I get it. Right. It’s a healthy move to cure all of us of our addiction to parking.

in Opinion
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