In St. Louis County’s next election, a proposition will be on the ballot to impose a half-cent sales tax increase to fund expanded Metro services across the St. Louis area. Many members of the Washington University community have voiced strong support for this proposition and involved themselves in the effort to ensure its passage. Yet no one seems to acknowledge Prop A for what it is—an unbridled exploitation of St. Louis’ poor and working-class families. The fact that so many self-proclaimed liberal students are willing to use the force of government to provide for their transit on the backs of the poor is the epitome of hypocrisy.
A sales tax is a regressive tax. A regressive tax is the opposite of a progressive tax, like the U.S. income tax, which increases the tax burden as your income rises. The burden of regressive taxation falls most heavily on those with low-income and fixed budgets. Because the poor use a much higher portion of their income to fund their daily consumption, a much larger part of their earnings must be dedicated to any tax on consumption.
The argument is often made that the majority of St. Louis’ poor live in the city. This proposition imposes the sales tax only on the county, where the people are much wealthier. Those who make this argument are either ignorant or intentionally trying to mislead. Back in 1997, the city of St. Louis passed a sales tax increase to fund Metro, the deal being that if the county were ever to pass a similar tax, the city tax would be triggered. The passage of Prop A would trigger this tax in the city, and the poor would be forced to donate even more to the light-rail service they largely do not use.
The light-rail service, which Metro intends to expand with its new profits, is plagued by a whole host of special interest groups that use their power and influence to ensure that the rail service is provided to their stomping grounds. When light rail is installed, chancellors of powerful, wealthy universities can ensure that costly Metro stops are placed right outside their institutions. Light rail rarely goes to the places where the poor live and work. Consequently, the poor are largely dependent on the more-flexible bus service, which is often cut whenever light rail is expanded.
Many students at Wash. U. seem to support the expansion of light rail for environmental reasons. If they feel that strongly about the need to save the planet through Metro, I am sure they would be willing to sacrifice the obscene discount they receive on their Metro passes. If the Washington University community would pay the full price for the Metro services they use, Metro would bring in an additional $9.3 million yearly. Instead, Wash. U. only pays roughly 20 percent of the cost of a yearly Metro pass while simultaneously demanding that the poor make up the difference. That means a Wash. U. student pays $250 less for his yearly Metro pass than a disabled person. Low-hanging fruits such as Wash. U.’s discount should be addressed before we make demands on the poor.
According to the U.S. Census, of the roughly 1 million people who live in St. Louis County, only 10,000 actually use public transit. With the $160 million that would be brought in annually from the county to fund the Metro ($80 million in current revenue plus an increase of $80 million after Prop A), we could afford to buy all of the county’s public transit users a new car every year. The idea that such a small number of commuters should be allowed to benefit at such a high cost to everyone else is nothing short of highway robbery.
Milton Friedman once said, “There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government program.” If Prop A is allowed to pass, St. Louis citizens can expect Metro to be back asking for more in no time. Metro’s unfunded liabilities, a result of Cadillac pension plans, are enormously high. Its ultimate expansion desires are overly ambitious and incapable of being supported by St. Louis’ population density.
Washington University students should stop drinking Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s Kool-Aid and wake up to the fact that plundering the poor is an unjust way to get to and from school. If expanded Metro services are desired, Wash. U. can afford to contribute a little more before demanding that the taxpayers subsidize the transit. Until then, all of Washington University’s supposed “social justice” initiatives should be viewed with a skeptical eye. Helping the poor is a lot more difficult than giving up tomatoes.
Philip is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].