Mischievous politicians and bureaucratic linguistics

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By Bill Koch, editor

Florida lawmakers are onto something.

It’s called the “taxation transparency” bill. And it’s something English teachers, wordsmiths and political junkies may love.

House Bill 7053 would, essentially, call a tax a tax, no more playing with words.

Here’s how it works: Lawmakers want to boost revenue by raising taxes. But “taxes” is a bad word among the electorate who would prefer to keep as much of its money as possible.

So, sneaky politicians just call it by another name: “fees,” “surcharges,” “assessments” or some other magical word.

The semantics – and the legalese – gets tricky. Florida law describes a fee as a levy for services that would benefit specific groups of people. A tax has a considerably looser meaning. It can be used for general purposes. 

“These levies are often government exactions of money to pay for governmental goods or services that are either unrelated to or only distantly related to the activity, person or entity being charged,” said Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, the House Ways & Means chairman. “Alternatively, there may be some benefit to the payer, but there is no ability to avoid the levy.”

Some government leaders don’t like the idea, arguing that it fails to recognize the distinction between taxes and fees and undermines home rule. It also may hamper development of worthy community infrastructure projects and hamper local governments and school districts from making necessary improvements, they say.

While their concern is warranted, renaming “taxes” for the sake of making their proposals more palatable is merely playing shell games to generate public revenue.

Granted, taxation transparency may require local politicians to work a little harder in selling the merits of their new ventures.

Opponents also argue that the measure would make it complicated and difficult for local governments to issue public notices because rules for taxes are more complicated than for fees.

While apparently minor wording changes may make work for local government officials more challenging and put some important local projects on the backburner, the measure serves to undo so much of the sematic nonsense committed by our political forebears to fund public endeavors with gentler words like “fees” and “assessments.”

“It’s better to call it what it is,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples.

We have enough problems with words and their meanings. Let’s leave the complexities of linguistic meaning to lawyers and writers.

We need to apply the KISS rule to this one: Keep It Simple, Stupid.