E911 Tax Money – When It's Not Going To Boots, It Just Goes

from the Fleece-'em,-Danno dept

Your U.S.A. cellular phone bill, since the early 1990s, has had a fee levied on it by governments for E911 services. The fee differed from state to state, and was ostensibly to fund the upgrade of 911 call centers. The public safety call centers were to be readied to receive location information from cell phones, and to use that information to instruct emergency crews. The cellular carriers were required to collect this tax for the government, but were also separately required to design, create, and deploy the (much more expensive) systems that can determine where the caller is. The government basically required the carriers to fund a public safety system (which you may or may not agree with). One thing with which none of us could agree was that the E911 taxes on our phone bills were promptly squandered by governments, for years, on just about everything except 911 call center upgrades. Money was mis-spent on ballpoint pens, conference attendance, dry cleaning, and boots.

Most of that is history; much of the US is now ugraded. (Please don’t rely on E911, as it only works when you have a good cell signal, battery power, and a few other things. Don’t use it as a crutch or as a "safety device"!) So what do you think will happen to those monthly taxes that were collected for so many years? Time to cancel them, right? Not so fast, says the State of Hawaii, which gets 66 cents of E911 fees from every monthly bill. This article in the Honolulu Advertiser shows how various government agencies are trying to get their hands on the "windfall." A few examples of this include: the Honolulu PD wants a new dispatch system for $20m, the Board that manages the fund wants their mandate extended to spend on other tech like VoIP location, the State hired a new Executive Director of the E911 fund for $294,421/yr, the legislature is taking $16M from the fund to help balance the budget, and some are trying to build new cell towers with the money. The article predicts future raids on the funds, and given what we’ve seen nationwide, we would agree.

What is it about this country that we can’t just call a tax a tax. We seem to have an addiction to tucking and hiding fees into a wide range of services, where over time the fees have little to do with the services. Dear government: If you’re going to tax me, please just do it up front, talk to me honestly, and say it’s a tax. I want to feel you reaching into my pocket, instead of having you just skim the till behind my back.

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Comments on “E911 Tax Money – When It's Not Going To Boots, It Just Goes”

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16 Comments
John Doe says:

Wishful Thinking...

If we really knew what percentage of our income went to taxes every year, we would have revolted years ago. This also brings up the discussion of simplifying the tax code. That will never happen for two reasons. First, it put a large chunk of people out of work (tax accountants, lawyers, IRS, etc. Second and more importantly, the government would lose control of the people and businesses. Through tax code, they can either encourage or discourage behavior of the populace. That is the single biggest reason we will never see a simple, fair tax!

Brian says:

Totally Agree

Well written. Totally agree. I think the only reason the government doesn’t do this is because if people were to realize that more of their income goes to taxes (about 50% if you count income, property, sales, social security, medicare, licenses, estate, gas, …) than anything else (mortgage, food, utilities) that there would be a revolt. Better to hide it in 100 ways so people don’t realize just how much they are paying.

Alan says:

Bits OK?

On the face of it, cell towers to extend coverage and a PD dispatch system could fall broadly within the scope of the levy. It could even (at a stretch) be extended to VOIP location, but general revenue?
However, where I am (South Australia) we have a similar ‘tax’, the Emergency Services levy, which was ostensibly to provide a joint radio network for Fire, Police and Ambulance so they could all cross-communicate when required (previously they were all on different systems). That goal was achieved about three years ago, but we’re still getting the demand for payment every year…

Pablo (user link) says:

Let the Raiding Begin

With our current economic climate, all these taxes have become eternal and their original purposes have become irrelevant. California voters refused to throw targeted funds into the general pot, but watch bureaucrats find ways to charge ‘access fees’ to various agencies to tap their funds. Looks like Argentina came to me before I could visit it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?

In the past, if local municipalities couldn’t afford to fund public safety projects, they used to create a case and go to city council for funding, or to the voters for larger projects.

Perhaps some overly eager person is running the Emergency Dispatch Center Program and is trying to earn their wings and beef up their resume before leaving town.

So I’ll put it plainly: The way it works in America is elected officials have to EARN the public trust. Back-alley taxes and closed room deals really isn’t the way to do it. If the Trust Fund is running at a surplus, then there should be a dispersal back to the taxpayers, unless the taxpayers VOTE to disperse the remaining funds elsewhere.

Beta says:

If you want to do something about this, just don’t take the bait from now on, and teach others not to. When someone says “we want to levy a new tax on X in order to pay for…” just stop there. Be firm and remind yourself that it doesn’t matter what they say the money is for. When you say “I don’t want a new tax on X”, some people will look at you aghast and say “but it’s to save the lives of underpriviledged babies! How can you be against that??” And when you try to explain, they won’t let you. Be firm. Here are a couple of points to bear in mind, even if you don’t get to say them out loud:

1) Even if they say it’s to pay for Y, nothing prevents them from using it for Z, if not right away then as soon as the spotlight is off them. Consider many, many examples… In fact, has raising a tax on X to pay for Y ever worked as advertised?

2) If those babies are now getting money from the general coffers (and they almost certainly are) then they are in political equilibrium. As soon as they are better off because of this new tax (IF that ever happens) then those who write the general budget can quietly scale back and give them that much less.

3) If we want to put more money into Y, do we have to raise a new tax? Can’t you think of a few things we could cut back on? (NOTE: if your opponent wants to choose “the alternative”, you are being conned again.)

Snidely (profile) says:

Seen it before...

You make it sound like this is a new phenomemon. The telephone tax from the Spanish-American war was only repealed a few years ago. Pretty sure that war was paid off long ago. Governments are greedy and no one wants to turn down easy money. It would be nice if the gov just had a flat tax on everything (like here in Europe with the VAT) rather than wildly different taxes on certain products (like alcohol, tobacco and gas).

vastrightwing (profile) says:

Giving money to politicians is like...

giving alcohol and the car keys to a teenager — P.J. O’rourke

Yes, they are not stewards of our money. I’ve learned to laugh at them all (dems/repubs) They all love to tax and spend. The biggest tax of course is the inflation they cause by printing money. Taxes never stop, they always find a new tax. And the justifications they shout about never matter because the money always ends up in the pockets of the politicians.

Anonymous Coward says:

“If you’re going to tax me, please just do it up front, talk to me honestly, and say it’s a tax.”

Really? Then how is it then every time a politician mentions raising taxes or creating a new one in this country a good percentage of the voting population goes nuts? Sorry but in this case politicians are just being politicians, trying to strike a balance between needing to fund government and what they can convince their voters to cough up.

I see this as simple learned behavior and voters have no one to blame but themselves. Just look at how voters reacted to 2 terms of GWB promising to cut taxes. Wonderful impact that has had on the economy no?

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I see this as simple learned behavior and voters have no one to blame but themselves.”

True, but consider my post again. I don’t call out my readers by name, but I’m trying to make a point to the citizens as well as the government.

We should utterly refuse the backdoor taxes, but that means we need to also accept a few upfront taxes. How much you accept is fodder for elections.

Chris (user link) says:

Hidden taxes

Sometimes governments are so intent on hiding telecom taxes from their constituents that they actually try to force carriers to roll the taxes into their general rates, forbidding them to show the tax as a line item.

Kentucky tried this. The federal courts struck it down as a First Amendment violation. (What better way to show the effect of a tax law than to show the effect on the customer’s bottom line.)

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