Sunday, August 28, 2011

Big Brother in Action: Board of Equalization Hits Pleasant Hill Man With $1,400 in Cigarette Taxes

A couple days ago, we wrote about the alarming aggressive streak we were starting to see in the state's Board of Equalization, the agency responsible for overseeing tax collection in California. With the advent of the Amazon Tax, it looks as though Sacramento is wholeheartedly rejecting the idea that personal privacy or money should be obstacles to extracting every dollar of its citizens that it feels it's entitled to. As an example, check out this report in yesterday's San Jose Mercury News.

Those of you who don't live in California may not understand something about the Golden State: it really, really, really, really hates smoking. And Pleasant Hill resident Paul Brodman just found out the hard way. According to the Mercury News, Brodman found a great deal on cigarettes through an out-of-state online retailer, and bought about 100 cartons over the Internet in 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately for him, the Board of Equalization has something called the "Cigarette Internet Program", which apparently involves putting the screws to attorneys general in other states to force their retailers to cough up purchase data to California. As a result, Brodman just got a $1,400 tax bill from California for his cigarettes, which includes the 87-cent excise tax on every pack and an 8.25% use tax on the total amount.

A spokeswoman for the Board, of course, frames the issue as one of fairness. We would frame it as one of privacy. We accept that our government believes it's entitled to as much of our money as it wants; that doesn't make it much different from any other government out there. But every Californian should be concerned about a state agency, not involved with law enforcement, going on a fishing expedition through their online and mail-order purchases for any reason. We can't imagine the costs of this program don't outweigh the revenues it uncovers. More importantly, we can't help but worry about the potential for abuse inherent in an unaudited government database of citizens' private interests.

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