Sunday, February 22, 2009

A school funding solution

Tax your television

TV D-Day was supposed to go down on Tuesday, but the digital revolution won’t be televised for a few more months. Those of you who use frail metal rods to conjure television programming out of the ether have a reprieve. I used to be a member in good standing of the Analog and Aerial Society, but about a year ago I figured I was spending way more money in taverns watching the Blazers and Mariners than it costs for the necessary Comcast package.

Being a cheapskate, I finally subscribed to cable. That’s as far as I’m going, though. The 20-year-old set I inherited from my parents still works fine in my opinion. My eyes don’t have crystal clear vision, so there’s no need for my television to be any better.

The digital switchover, however, has gotten me to thinking about another issue that never goes away and only seems to get worse from time to time: education funding. With the state budget shriveling, it appears school children are once again headed for any early vacation this spring. Yesterday, Gov. Kulongoski asked teachers to work several days this year without pay. (Being the big man he is, Kulo announced he also would cut his own pay by five percent--from $93,600 per year.)

Public schools in Oregon are funded through an equalization formula based on local property taxes and to a greater extent general fund revenue from Salem. Portland, being the wealthiest part of the state, sends roughly half a billion dollars to poorer districts in more rural areas. On top of this, so much Portland property is tied up in “blighted” urban renewal districts (like the Pearl) that the tax base is inadequate.

A new source of revenue is needed and the coming digitizing of television offers an obvious solution: tax television.

We tax cigarettes and give the money to health programs. Although an increase in the tobacco tax was defeated last year, each pack of cigarettes carries a $1.18 tax that is sent to the Oregon Health Plan, other state health care agencies and smoking prevention programs. Cigarette smokers can squeal all they want about the tax being unfair, but sooner or later most of them get cancer, emphysema, heart disease, a stroke or an ulcer and the financial burden of these consequences far exceeds the puny amount of revenue collected by the coffin nail tax.

So if we tax cigarettes because they make people sick, we should tax television because it makes people stupid. This is particularly true for children. The more kids watch television, typically the lower their academic achievement. There also is evidence that children who watch television for several hours a day run a higher risk of suffering from attention deficit disorders. Dealing with these kinds of problems costs schools a lot of money.

By the way, no exemptions allowed for “educational television.” You can watch OPB only and still not involve the higher brain area as much as you would by reading Danielle Steele, a graphic novel or the ingredient list on a box of cereal.

Surely by now you are thinking taxing television is a downright commie pinko un-American idea, just like providing universal health care to U.S. citizens. Exactly. And just like universal health care, every other developed nation in the world has a television tax. Most follow the British model that requires citizens to pay for an annual license for each television they own—139 (approximately $200) for a color set and 47 for a black and white one. The money raised from this fee supports the BBC. In many other countries, the tax also funds public broadcasting, though in some it goes into the general fund.

The British employ a fleet of vans equipped with sensors capable of detecting a working television and these vans cruise the streets scanning homes and apartments for unlicensed TVs. With the coming digital switch, such old-fashioned Orwellian tactics won't be necessary. Your television ownership and usage can easily be monitored from the headquarters of your cable or satellite service. Okay, that's even more Orwellian, and it's probably happening to you right now (just as it is with your broadband Internet connection). Might as well put it to good use.

Let's do some paper napkin type of calculations: there are 1.6 million households in Oregon and just to make things simple, assume there is one TV per household. Sure, many homes have no TV, but many others have more than one. If Oregon levied a tax comparable to the British fee--$200--that would generate $320 million per year for education. Add on at least $10 million more from the sets in sports bars and hotel lobbies. That's not quite enough to fill the projected $850 million budget hole the state is in for this fiscal year, but it would certainly hold harmless the education part of it.

Taxing the TV, however, seems shortsighted. What really should be taxed is the amount of time it is on. In the average American household, the TV is on eight hours a day—or 2,920 hours a year. Surely, there exists the technology for cable and satellite television companies to track the amount of time each household has its television on. And if that is feasible, it should also be possible to track the viewing of television programming on one's computer via high speed connections.

If a dime tax were levied on each hour of television viewing—or, as in many cases, of sleeping in the La-Z-Boy with the TV on—that would generate almost half a billion in revenue for education. Maybe allow for a full school year and still pay our teachers.

Bump it up to a quarter, you've got over a billion dollars coming in. Sure, that would be $730 a year for every Oregon household, or $320 per person. But each of us has other options, such as turning off the tube off and maybe reading a book.

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