The Public Policy

The Giant Flushing Sound

Pay as you go has never sounded less appealing.

By 2.27.09

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It's become passé to compare government spending with flushing taxpayer dollars down the porcelain pedestal. This is the age of porkulus, after all. When lawmakers view a $787 billion stimulus package as a pared-down compromise, analogies between government waste and, well, certain flushing functions lose their originality.

But I'm going to be a prig and do it anyway.

Reports about new taxes in foreign countries always worry me because I know these ploys will end up in the United States sooner rather than later.

Case in point: Australia's proposed toilet tax. Yes, you read that right. In addition to alliterating well, the toilet tax is supposed to fight the Outback's "epic drought" (as described by the Independent World).

The move would abolish Australia's current system of sewage charges, which is based on property value, and replace it with a per-flush tax. Think of it as a pay-as-you-go system.

One representative of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization suggested the toilet tax would help prepare the country for "the potential impact of climate change," according to the Sunday Telegraph.

He didn't explain how conserving toilet flushes would conserve the polar ice caps. But I can easily picture an environmentalist ad campaign that encourages homeowners to buy energy-efficient toilets to prevent the arctic plumbing from overflowing.

Lest you mistake the concept of taxing toilets an invention peculiar to European nations and that former penal-colony down under, think again. The toilet Stasi is alive and well in the land of the free, too. Fighting the giant bogeyman of global warming seems the underlying rationale for most bathroom-related initiatives.

Take Cary, North Carolina, as an example. Known for enacting its share of Soviet-style restrictions, this affluent suburb of Raleigh has now entered the one room you thought Big Brother would never touch: the bathroom.

The Cary town council approved a rebate program for energy-efficient toilets last year. The goal was to get homeowners to ditch their water-hogging models in favor of EPA-designated WaterSense toilets that use 1.3 gallons per flush. Those who make the swap get a $150 rebate.

The EPA claims that, in many cases, a "WaterSense labeled toilet can pay for itself in only a few years." But homeowners in Cary would only save a couple bucks a month on their utility bill for each toilet. Some residents are willing to make that tradeoff, but should the town encourage it through taxpayer-sponsored rebates?

Including extra funds devoted to the program in October, Cary has spent a total of $89,000 on the retrofit, according to the town's budget office. The town carries $27 million in debt service for fiscal year 2009, up 12 percent from last year, and has $303 million in overall debt. Sounds like a scenario for tightening the fiscal belt, not embarking on (no doubt well-intentioned) environmentalist crusades.

Unfortunately, Cary is not alone in its toilet swap. In fact, many county and municipal governments offer residents incentives for buying energy-efficient models. Saving water and money is a laudable goal, but government should let individuals make that determination. Some value water conservation; others can't afford a sleek toilet that has a not-so-sleek price tag. Let the market decide.

Even though the program doesn't make sense economically for consumers, and even though local governments can scarcely afford environmentalist endeavors in these uncertain times, the toilet crusade will march on. Few politicians will dare join the loyal opposition. Doing so would risk being labeled anti-green, a political death knell in the age of global warming alarmism.

Don't expect the issue to go away, either. Australia's toilet strategy could soon be a reality in the United States, especially as global warming phobia increases and the Obama administration takes steps to create a "sustainable" country, however much it costs. Look for the flushing sound to get louder.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.