by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Beware of government agencies’ misuse of language and media outlets’ failure to detect and correct that misuse.
Today’s edition of the Raleigh News & Observer offers a great example.
RALEIGH — The state Board of Transportation agreed Wednesday to tell the legislature that new fees would be needed to eliminate taxpayer subsidies that now pay for services the state Department of Transportation performs for developers and other businesses – but board members made it clear that legislators would be responsible for any fee increases.
“To be clear, we are not implementing fees,” said Ned Curran of Charlotte, the board chairman.
The General Assembly this year directed DOT – in response to a recommendation from DOT itself – to report on what new or increased fees would be needed to cover the full cost of regulating billboards, subdivisions and oversize trucks, and monitoring utility line installation and other construction along state roads.
The problem with the opening sentence? There are no “taxpayer subsidies.” My copy of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary lists as its first definition of “subsidy” the following: “a direct pecuniary aid furnished by a government to a private industrial undertaking, a charity organization, or the like.” Other definitions involve grants or payments from one government to another because of a treaty. It seems that the first definition is the one applicable in this instance.
But as the third paragraph explains, the supposed subsidy in this case involves the costs associated with government regulation. These are not costs tied to a “private industrial undertaking” or a “charity organization.” These are costs tied to government activity. In other words, this is a “government undertaking.”
My objection has nothing to do with the idea of instituting new fees. A user-fee model makes sense for much of government activity, and the new fees might make sense in this case.
But the implication from the article, which might have been the implication from the N.C. Department of Transportation, is that private businesses have been getting some kind of special deal at taxpayers’ expense. That’s not true. Government has forced private businesses to get plan reviews, inspections, and permits before they can proceed with a “private industrial undertaking.” Taxpayers have funded the government agencies overseeing that regulation. Now government officials are considering shifting that burden to some extent from those who pay gas taxes to those who are forced to comply with the government regulations.
That shift might make sense, but it’s not a case of eliminating “taxpayer subsidies.”