Bah, humbug! New Christmas tree tax proposed

The farm bill includes a 15-cent levy on the sale of fresh-cut trees. A similar measure was killed in 2011.

By Forbes Digital Dec 11, 2013 1:49PM
Credit: Bruce Smith/AP

Caption: Fraser fir Christmas trees are offered for sale at a tree lot in Mount Pleasant, S.C.By Kelly Phillips Erb, Forbes Contributor

Like many families, we spent the last few days decorating for the holidays -- and that included putting up our Christmas tree. Our tree was one of nearly 45 million Christmas trees purchased this year: about 30 million of those will be real.

That’s a lot of green. And I’m not just talking about needles: the sale of trees generates quite a bit of revenue for retailers, growers and marketers.

It may cost even more if Congress gets its way: the farm bill -- which the House and Senate have yet to hash out -- once again includes a Grinch-y tax on Christmas trees. The tax, a 15-cent assessment/tax on the sale of fresh-cut Christmas trees, first reared its ugly head in 2010. The measure was considered in 2011 but was so wildly unpopular that it was killed by the Obama administration. So, logically, Congress is trying it again.

The tax is meant to raise money. But what it's raising money for is baffling: a new federal program to improve the image and marketing of Christmas trees. It seems that Christmas trees are suffering from bad PR. And for that, we apparently need (and I'm not making this up) a Christmas Tree Promotion Board.

Real trees tell a positive story about local farms, environmental stewardship and cultural tradition. And they need the fair and sustainable structure such an order provides to compete against factory built, outsourced, plastic trees, which are dramatically increasing in market share and landfills.
You got that, right? Artificial trees are killing America. Or something like that. At least according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Which brings us to the plan: Charge more for Christmas trees in order to try and sell more Christmas trees. And in true D.C. fashion, there’s a lots and lots of red ribbon, er, tape to go along with it.

When the proposal first made news in 2011, I was a little horrified by the notion of a special Christmas tree promotion footed by taxpayers. So I popped on over to the federal regulations to see what else our government is in the business of promoting these days. We also have marketing programs on the books for cotton, mangoes, potatoes, "processed" raspberries, mushrooms, watermelons, honey, popcorn, peanuts , soft-wood lumber, blueberries, hass avocadoes, soybeans, sorghum, pork, eggs, beef, wool & mohair and lamb. We love our regulations, huh? And promotion. And marketing.

Stuck in the middle of that laundry list of promotion regulations is 7 CFR 1214: the Christmas Tree Promotion, Research, and Information Order (downloads as a pdf). The order spells out the process for collecting the tax, including the exemptions process and forms. It also attempts to make clear that the 15-cent assessment "is not a tax nor does it yield revenue for the Federal government" since "these producer and importers funds raised by producers and importers are for the benefit of producers and importers."

For the record, an assessment is "an amount assessed, as for taxation." The folks at the Agricultural Marketing Services of the USDA can call it what they want: It's a tax. And while the tax assessment is not being charged directly to taxpayers, sellers are free to pass it along to consumers -- which we, of course, know that they will. That's how retail works. Industry doesn't eat extra costs, they chew them up and spit them out to consumers.

That said, at the end of the day, we're only talking about 15 cents (the order does allow for an increase of up to 20 cents). Those numbers are not going to make or break Christmas tree buyers. And that's what government is counting on: It's easy to nickel and dime consumers (in this case, remarkably so since the tax assessment is exactly a nickel and a dime). However, as Daren Bakst, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said:

A 15-cent tax may not seem like much. However, taxes are a death by a thousand cuts. One of those cuts shouldn't come from the Christmas tree.

And it's not much. The concerning issue, however, isn't so much the tax assessment as the policy. Should it be the job of government to promote one industry over the other? One holiday over another? One product over another? I get that we do it already for beef and for dairy and for a bunch of other products. . . but does that make it right?

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Dec 11, 2013 2:43PM
Government is like the blob...only grows, never shrinks, and gobbles up everything in its path.  Soon the Christmas Tree Promotion Board will need to issue regulations and hire a team of inspectors and administrators to find fault in order to justify its very existence.  And that cost, of course, will be passed to the taxpayer as the cycle begins anew. 
Dec 11, 2013 3:12PM

Doesn't make much sense, only about $4.5 million in revenue. We could get that much by cutting $8500 off of congressmen and senators  salaries. Better yet, cut their salaries by 15% and reduce their staff by 10%. They don't need the staff they have as they only work 30% of the time we pay them.

I suggest that they are put on a productivity rate, do nothing get nothing. We could have balanced the budget and had 2 years of surplus if that had been started in 2009.

The founding fathers did not want a lifetime legislator, they wanted citizens to volunteer to govern and then go home. Key word volunteer not make a million(s).

Dec 11, 2013 2:40PM
Oh, Jeez, in the amazingly creative and logical minds of Congress!  How about a BIG surcharge tax on FAKE Christmas trees, instead, going to the same purpose?  DUH!!  Or better yet, how about if Congress simply stays (the heck) out of the Christmas Tree Farm business?
Dec 11, 2013 2:50PM
So sick and ridiculous that our government promotes anything. Leave our money alone and let us figure out what we want to buy. The government should have no say in this matter. Our government has far bigger things to be worried about than levying special taxes on any product, especially when its just going to the promotion of that product. Is anyone else tired of all the BS we deal with from our government??? When does the nonsense end??? Does anyone have any common sense in Washington???
Dec 11, 2013 2:51PM
Congress is doing all it can to kill this country. Making crazy laws and taxing stuff they need to stay clear of. But you can bet not one thing they legislate hurts there pocketbooks.
Dec 11, 2013 3:17PM
REVOLUTION! I propose we stick one very prickly Christmas tree up each behind in congress and then throw them ALL out the "door"! Fire the president and elect a new leader and congress without TV ads or corporate money. Make them beholden to the constitution and have a goal of abolishing laws on the books that are not absolutely necessary for the survival of the nation as a whole.
Dec 11, 2013 3:06PM
If you have land, plant two or three trees a year that you can select from.  As they grow bigger you take them out and replace them with smaller trees.  It's fun to trim them up and it's of your own doing.  Screw the government. 
Dec 11, 2013 3:00PM
Obamaville will mandate that you must purchase a "holiday tree" each December so that Obamaville can tax you for the extra revenue that it needs to redistribute to the "Obama go'n' ta pay my mo'gage" program.
Dec 11, 2013 3:08PM
Pass the bill then read it! These people in office are idiots. Find the bill originator and kick them out of office.
Dec 11, 2013 2:39PM
This would descriminate against and tax a religious practice.  No way it'd pass the Constitution test...then again look at all the laws they pass that don't and no one seems to care...
Dec 11, 2013 3:17PM

What ?! THIS seems like governmental over-reaching to WE the people ???

When the "Air" Tax is levied on us in the near-future we'll look back on the days we didn't have to pay to suck in a draft of fresh air with a sentimental fondness.......

Will the gov't give Asthmatics an air tax-break ? LOL.....

Land of the FREE......Does anyone actually believe that line anymore?

Dec 11, 2013 2:51PM

I have no problem with a tree tax in general, but the reasoning behind it is dumb.   Looks like just another gov't agency invented to grant more cushy jobs.  This is the kind of stuff we need to trim.  Downsize the Gov't!  We don't need them regulating everything we do.

Dec 11, 2013 3:23PM
Why do the American people tolerate the government at every level despoiling themselves and their posterity of their income?
Dec 11, 2013 3:13PM
We should have a problem with every tax unless the reasoning behind it is sound. Yes, downsize the grubberment and start eliminating unecessary laws, bureaus, and boards. We need revolution! They will not do this on their own!
Dec 11, 2013 4:04PM
O' Christmas Tree, O' Christmas Tree.  You'll soon pay taxes just like me.

Maybe they will start calling them Obmatrees, and you will need to enroll in a "Obamatree" program called the "Affordable Holiday-tree Act", or "Aha!" for short.  If you cannot afford a tree, the government will provide a tree for you paid for by the "Obamatree Tax" fund.  Or, if you fall into a certain income level, you will find a subsidy check in your Christmas stocking to reimburse you for your tree;<)                                                                                                         
Dec 11, 2013 3:16PM
How dumb.  That will just make more people buy fake.  Who will keep those trees for 20 years and put the tree growers out of work. 
Dec 11, 2013 2:40PM
The government can take their 15 cent tax on Christmas trees and shove it up their dupa. My artificial fur tree is just fine. No mess, no fuss, easy to cover and store away. It's a crime to chop down a young beautiful healthy tree, just to decorate for a few weeks and then throw it away or burn.  
Dec 11, 2013 2:39PM
Real trees are nice, but I prefer my fake one. I can take it down when I want and put it up when I want. I can make the branches bend the way I want. I don't have to water it. I don't have to be vacuuming needles endlessly. It cost me a one-time cost that lasts year after year. Sorry, National Christmas Tree Association. You can't convince me otherwise.
Dec 11, 2013 3:54PM
Everyone needs to just say "enough is enough."  Soon they will want to tax us for breathing on public property.  Take a note from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Their government raised taxes on public transportation fares and there was a protest.  It started out at about 1000 demonstrators and turned into thousands upon thousands protesting every night. The more the police would bully them, more showed up. And they fought back.  They blocked the streets, protested and showed their government they would not be pushed around. Guess what happened?  Their government dropped the new tax increase and they've been tip toeing ever since.  And of course, it was hardly ever shown here in the States.  They (the Government and their Media counterparts) don't want you to know that you have the power, not the government.  
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