COMMENTARY: A Christmas tree tax? No, not really
By Kevin Binversie
Was the government really set to enact a "tax" on Christmas trees just so the industry could promote itself? If so, how is that even possible? Wouldn't some say such a policy might violate the separation of church and state doctrine within the 1st Amendment?
Late Tuesday night, David Addington, vice president of domestic and economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, (Full disclosure, I once worked there) reported the U.S Department of Agriculture would be levying a 15 cent per tree fee on any Christmas tree producer in the nation who sells 500 trees or more a year. Producers and other Christmas tree growers, of course, could in the end pass the fee onto Christmas tree buyers.
Wednesday night, that changed.
The Obama administration has since backpedaled on implementing the fee, and will not seek the extra money. The White House added the USDA also will revisit the action at a later date.
Had it gone into effect, the 15 cent per tree fee would have funded a new “Christmas Tree Promotion Board,” which would be a “program of promotion, research, evaluation, and information designed to strengthen the Christmas tree industry’s position in the marketplace; maintain and expand existing markets for Christmas trees; and to carry out programs, plans, and projects designed to provide maximum benefits to the Christmas tree industry,” according to federal regulations.
Meaning, it’s an attempt by the USDA to prop up the industry, since sales of traditional, fresh-cut trees have taken a hit in recent years, as consumers choose reusable, artificial trees seen by some as a cheaper, longer-lasting alternative.
Now despite the irony of watching the federal government trying to enact a tax on something and then using the revenue to promote that item, there is a very real tie to Wisconsin. According to recent data available from the National Christmas Tree Association, the Badger State is fifth in both trees produced and trees sold.
Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association, tells Wisconsin Reporter the creation of the promotion board has been an agenda item for the Christmas tree industry with USDA since 2009. The promotion board is a check-off program where producers pay into a fund intended to help an agricultural industry with its marketing initiatives. Similar ones exist for the pork, beef and dairy industries.
“The majority of Wisconsin growers supported the creation of it,” Nicholson said. “Nationwide, tree sales have been steady over the past two years. In 2007, there was a decline, but they’ve spiked back up again, because the industry has been doing more promotion of real trees.”
Nicholson said the fee would not have affect many Wisconsin producers and consumers because of how growers have set up their operations. “Many growers in Wisconsin have less than 10 acres worth of trees,” Nicholson said. “That means they will not be selling 500 or more trees a year.”
However there is another aspect of this that could get really dicey. Is there a First Amendment issue because, in theory, government is now in the business of promoting what some see as a religious object?
On Monday, the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation fomented rage when it was announced that Gov. Scott Walker would declare the annual Capitol Christmas tree, just that — a Christmas tree — not a “Holiday tree” as had been state practice since 1985, when politicians bowed to the demands of various atheist groups. Nicholson is hopeful that won’t happen here.
“The Christmas tree isn’t technically a religious item, since it’s not any different than any other agricultural product,” said Nicholson. “People buy one for their own reasons, but farmers are growing them as an agricultural product. Yes, it has religious history, but many people now may be buying one today for any number of reasons, some religious, some traditional.”
Time will tell if such legal reasoning will withstand the test of litigation-happy atheists.
As weird as the idea of what's been called a “Christmas Tree Tax” sounds, in American agricultural policy it’s not that uncommon. USDA has set up a number of promotion boards for trade associations to aid in the promotion of agricultural products, such as milk, beef, lamb, pork and even honey or avocados. These boards have member producers pay into a general fund, which is overseen by the promotion board to direct money for ads, billboards and other ways to increase sales.
Would it be better if these agricultural industries did this on their own without assistance by the federal government? Absolutely, plus it would allow them to avoid the use of the word “tax” when the policy is being talked about, but such is the system set up years ago to aid America’s farmers.
As for the real question regarding Christmas trees, by all means get a real one. They just make the holiday all the merrier.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.