Connecting Sin to Service

Connecting Sin to Service

This past Thursday, the Tampa City Council voted 4-3 to end its red light camera program. In so doing, Tampa joined the City of St. Petersburg, which made a similar decision earlier in March. But many other cities, such as Jacksonville, Miami,  Daytona Beach, Clermont, Winter Park, Holly Hill and Ocoee,  are keeping their programs.

Meanwhile, efforts by some in the Florida Legislature to kill the red light camera statewide were set back when the House’s principal critic of the cameras opted for additional regulation of their use, rather than a repeal of the law that permits them.

There is ongoing controversy about under what circumstances and to what extent red light cameras make our intersections safer (you can read some of my thoughts on the subject here, here and here). But that’s only part of what the political fight is about, as the decision of Tampa’s City Council makes clear.

In the case of Tampa, the split council voted to end the program, not over concerns about its effectiveness, but (at least in part) over the use of the money that was generated by the fines.

“The city should take some of (its red light camera) revenue and use it to increase safety even more” Councilwoman Mary Mulhern was quoted as saying, while Councilman Frank Reddick insisted that “a small percentage (of profits) . . . go to infrastructure.”

There are other things going on here (city councils in strong mayor cities often spar with the mayor this way). My interest, however, is in the assertion, spoken in many contexts, that there should be a nexus between the means by which revenue is generated and the programs on which it should be spent.

The argument is straightforward enough. Think of the fine one pays for running a red light (and being caught on camera doing it) as a “sin tax.” The “sin” is running the red light. To discourage us from sinning, a more cost-effective means of catching us in the act is developed (think of the cost of having an officer at each dangerous intersection 24/7/365!). Set that “sin tax” at a level that makes it an effective deterrent and it seems likely that our collective behavior will change (which is, by the way, exactly what St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman asserted has happened as partial justification for recommending the end of their program).

That’s what sin taxes are supposed to do.

Granted, other sin taxes haven’t been as successful as Mayor Kriseman believes red light cameras have been. A lot of people still smoke, still drink and still gamble . . . and, in states where recreational marijuana is now legal, lots of folk still smoke pot, despite the high sin tax. (A lot of folks also regularly speed on our roads and highways, despite the high fines and other penalties they may face). But even in these areas, sin taxes probably reduce the “sinful” activity to some extent, even if they don’t eliminate it outright.

But there’s no clear nexus between the revenue generated as an effort to reduce a particular “sin” and the need for expenditures to address related public policy concerns. The need, for example, for drug counseling or anti-gambling addiction counseling may be greater than, or less than, or equal to, the revenue that would be generated if the sin tax was set at a level sufficient to deter some of the behavior. The two figures simply are not related in any necessary way.

There’s nothing wrong with spending the revenue generated by “sinners” on programs designed to reduce or ameliorate those sins. There’s even a certain poetic justice to it (like the use of drug dealers’ fancy cars in subsequent drug stings). There’s also a degree of political protection such expenditures provide when the sin tax itself is unpopular.

But we must be careful to avoid adopting the view that the “wages” of sin match the need for service.

Next: Sin Taxes and User Fees