The government has found over time that it is able to sell higher taxes to the voters on certain items if they can portray those items as representing some socially unwanted behavior. These are often called "sin" taxes. The justification for the tax in its beginning is as much about behavior control as revenue generation. Taxes on cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and even gasoline and plastic grocery bags have all been justified in part by the logic that higher taxes will reduce consumption.
However, a funny thing happens on the way to the treasury. Over time, government becomes dependent on the revenue from these taxes. The government begins to suffer when the taxes have their original effect -- ie reducing consumption -- because then tax revenues drop. The government ultimately finds itself in the odd position of resisting consumption drops or restructuring the tax so it no longer incentivizes reduced consumption so that it can protect its tax revenue collections.
Big tobacco was supposed to come under harsh punishment for decades of deception when it acceded to a tort settlement seven years ago. Philip Morris, R.J.Reynolds, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson agreed to pay 46 states $206 billion over 25 years. This was their punishment for burying evidence of cigarettes' health risks.
But the much-maligned tobacco giants have subtly and shrewdly turned their penance into a windfall. Using that tort settlement, the big brands have hampered tiny cut-rate rivals and raised prices with near impunity. Since the case was settled, the big four have nearly doubled wholesale cigarette prices from a national average of $1.25 a pack (not counting excise taxes) in 1998 to $2.10 now. And they have a potent partner in this scheme: state governments, which have become addicted to tort-settlement payments, now running at $6 billion a year. A key feature of the Big Tobacco-and-state-government cartel: rules that levy tort-settlement costs on upstart cigarette companies, companies that were not even in existence when the tort was being committed.
So, a tax that was originally meant to punish supposed past wrong doing by cigarette makers is causing problems because it was... actually doing what it was supposed to by hurting those companies. Lots of good stuff, I encourage you to read it all - basically state governments have gone from opponents of the cigarette companies to their partners. Antarctic Liberation Front opponent Eliot Spitzer comes in for particular attention.
A second example I discussed comes from San Francisco, where a tax aimed at discouraging use of plastic garbage bags was modified so that it collected more money, but no longer discouraged use of plastic.
A third example comes to us via Vodka Pundit, which points out that California now is considering supplementing their gas tax with a per-vehicle-mile tax. The gas tax was always effectively a per-vehicle-mile tax, since the amount of gas you used was proportional to the number of miles you drove. And, of course, the gas tax is far easier to manage than a per-vehicle-mile tax (yes, coming soon, its the odometer auditors!)
So why a need for the new tax? Well, it turns out that Californians are buying a lot of very fuel-efficient cars, including new hybrids, which reduces gas consumption and thus taxes. Of course, this is EXACTLY what most people hope the gas tax is doing - helping to conserve gasoline and reduce emissions and incentivizing people to purchase efficient vehicles. Now California is considering substituting a new tax that collects more money but provides no conservation incentives.
UPDATE: Welcome Carnival of the Vanities! If you're looking to kill more time at work today, check out my rant on the recent New London eminent domain case in front of the Supreme Court titled "all your base are belong to us".