So let's look at a movement in Los Angeles — of all places — that brings new clarity to the message that reducing government fees and taxes can help the economy, particularly the working poor.
Believe it or not, this is all about parking tickets.
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A group called the Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative wants to cap fines for parking regulations at $23. Why? Because the group understands that expensive parking tickets and aggressive parking enforcement inhibit business, add to traffic problems, and most importantly, disproportionately affect poor people who live and work in dense urban areas.
To clarify, the L.A. Parking Freedom Initiative is not calling for a cap on fines for legitimate safety violations like blocking a fire hydrant or taking a handicapped space. But right now, parking fines in L.A. cost an average of $68 and the prices can get a lot higher than that based on the infraction. That makes parking near work or even near home a dicey proposition for millions of people in the City of Angels.
And for people at the higher end of the economic spectrum, the parking situation is also a serious challenge. Business owners in downtown areas have a hard time competing against the big box stores and malls when they have little parking to offer and their customers have little time to shop or dine before having to run back to feed the meter.
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And the group also insists that reducing parking fines will actually increase city revenues, because increased business activity in downtown areas would bring in new revenues from sales and business income taxes.
Sound familiar? That's the Laffer Curve with a capital "C." (Laffer logic goes that as taxes increase, so does revenue but if they get too high, revenue actually declines.)
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's administration is at least showing a willingness to listen to and work with the Parking Freedom Initiative and I do wish them the best of luck in their quest.
But there is a larger lesson to learn here, one that just about every conservative politician other than the late Jack Kemp has failed to sell to anyone other than rich and upper middle class Americans.
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And that's the message that government fines and regulations, are just another form of taxation. And in the case of parking fines and regulations, they're a tax that hits the poor the hardest. Again, the parking activists in L.A. aren't looking to stagger the parking fine cap based on the violator's income. They want a $23 max for everyone from the boutique shopper on Rodeo Drive to the plumber working on East Olympic. So even though they may never have heard of Jack Kemp, Art Laffer or Ronald Reagan, they've figured out something that is the central economic message of conservative politics.
It's issues like parking fines and enforcement that conservatives need to seize if they want to start being relevant to more Americans. All the anti-government rhetoric coming out of the Tea Party is spot-on, but it's often twisted by statists to sound like all fiscal conservatives want no government at all.
But that's never been the argument. The problem is the government is too big, not that it exists at all. Conservatives can keep making that argument vis a vis corporate taxes or keep it literally on Main Street by focusing on things like parking fines, sales taxes, and fare hikes.
Which argument do you think will work out best?