Budget cuts lead to ‘crash taxes’

BUDGET CUTS LEAD TO ‘CRASH TAXES’…. For all the popularity for vague “budget cuts” — it’s apparently one of those phrases that every politician is supposed to say this year — there’s been some solid coverage lately of what these cuts mean in the real world.

A month ago, the New York Times reported that cash-strapped states and municipalities are resorting to “major life-changing cuts in core services.” This includes four-day weeks for public schools, local bus systems being shut down, and turning off streetlights in Colorado Springs. The report came on the heels of a Wall Street Journal piece about several state governments cutting back on paved roads, because they can only afford gravel. More recently, we learned that struggling public schools, finding their budgets slashed, used to simply require students to bring in glue, scissors, and crayons. They’re now demanding that families provide everything from paper towels to garbage bags to liquid soap. In one instance, children are asked to even bring in toilet paper.

Today the NYT reports on “a nascent budget-balancing trend in municipal government: police and fire departments have begun to charge accident victims as a way to offset budget cuts.”

Ambulance charges have long been common and are usually paid by health insurance, but fees for other responders are relatively new. The charge is variously called a “crash tax” or “resource recovery,” depending on one’s point of view. In either case, motorists are billed for services they may have thought were covered by taxpayers.

Sometimes the victim’s insurer pays. But if it declines, motorists may face threats from a collection agency if they don’t pay.

The AAA opposes such fees, said Jill Ingrassia, managing director for government relations and traffic safety advocacy. “Generally, we see that public safety services are a core government function that should be properly budgeted for with general taxes and not addressed by fees after the fact,” she said.

Ms. Ingrassia says such charges can place an “undue burden on motorists who can’t choose the size or duration of an emergency response,” which means they cannot control the size of the bill they may get. “We also really don’t want to discourage any motorist involved in a crash from calling for police or rescue services if they fear they are going to be billed for it,” she said.

I can certainly understand the larger budget dynamic — tax increases have been deemed wholly unacceptable, and Republicans won’t let Congress vote on additional state aid. The result leaves states having no choice but to resort to new fees, such as these.

But that last point from Ingrassia seems pretty persuasive. If there’s an incident, it seems problematic for folks to hesitate to contact fire/rescue, for example, because they can’t afford an expensive bill from the municipal government.

Regardless, it’s just another example of the glorious “budget cuts” that are apparently popular these days.