The public libraries of Florida, which by all accounts are in desperate condition, have turned to that state's legislature in hopes of relief. What they will get, if the Public Library Financial Assistance Act of 1986 (H. 765) is approved, is $18 million to $20 million a year in additional funds, which nobody disputes they need. The catch is the source of the money: a proposed 2 percent sales tax on books and magazines, the literary equivalent of the "sin tax" on tobacco and liquor.
It would be difficult to conjure up a more telling example of a bad means to a good end. Not even those of us who feel that libraries can have a chilling effect on the earnings of authors and publishers question the importance of a healthy, well-maintained public library system; in Florida, with its large population of pensioners, a strong library system would seem especially desirable. But the tax proposed in H. 765 benefits the libraries at the expense of almost everyone else: readers, booksellers, authors, publishers.
The bill is a remarkably vague piece of work, but it quite clearly would impose a 2 percent tax on the first sale within Florida of a book or magazine. Used books apparently would be included, though no one seems to know whether they would be taxed at their original or resale prices. Textbooks for kindergarten through the 12th grade would be exempt, as would Bibles and other religious books. The bill airily assigns collection of the tax to the Florida Department of Revenue, though it does not go so far as to specify how the department would go about doing so.
Quite apart from questions of fairness and constitutionality -- does a tax on books and magazines violate First Amendment guarantees? -- the bill poses massive enforcement and collection problems. If a book or magazine is first sold within Florida by a retailer, there is little difficulty: the seller tacks the 2 percent on top of the existing 5 percent sales tax, and charges the buyer accordingly. But if the first sale is by a distributor to a retailer, then matters become considerably stickier. The retailer pays the tax, then passes it along to the customer. How? By adding 2 percent to the list price of the book? How many buyers will be happy at seeing a $14.95 book marked up -- that's "up," a word customers generally don't like to hear -- to $15.25?
Keeping track of first-point-of-sale records would be, in and of itself, quite enough to give the Department of Revenue nightmares and, by no means incidentally, raise its collection costs significantly. But what about the problems the department would have in deciding which books are and are not exempt from the tax? Textbooks for grades K-12, you say? Well, in many 10th-grade English courses, or whatever they call them these days, students are required to read "A Tale of Two Cities" or "The Catcher in the Rye." Obviously those titles should be tax-exempt. But what about the general reader who buys one of these books in a retail bookstore? Why should he pay the tax when the high school student does not?
Bibles and religious books, you say? Sure, we can all agree about what a Bible is, but defining "religious books" is not exactly a piece of cake. You and I might feel that "The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr," newly published, is a "religious book"; but others, of different persuasion, probably would regard it as the work of the archfiend and consign it to the horror-fiction shelves. That same person might well consider the collected works of Anita Bryant, South Florida's patron saint, to be religious documents of the highest order; you and I, otherwise inclined, probably would place them in the self-help department, if not the Dempster Dumpster.
Then there is the not-inconsiderable matter of discrimination against bookstores and other retailers that sell books and/or magazines. That H. 765 would require these stores to pay what is in effect a subsidy for their competition is itself an irony of no small note, but Florida booksellers are not harping on that; they say they support the library system and welcome any reasonable, equitable suggestion for supporting it. But they point out that they would be required to charge a tax from which all other retailers are freed, and that the existence of this tax almost certainly would encourage stores that sell books and magazines as a sideline -- convenience stores, for example, or discount stores -- to stop doing so.
That would mean, in turn, fewer places to buy books and magazines in Florida and thus fewer opportunities for people to obtain reading matter, which surely cannot be what the state's librarians had in mind. As it happens, many of them are reported to be as strongly opposed to H. 765 as are the booksellers, the distributors, the Association of American Publishers and others whose opposition is more predictable. Responsible librarians, in Florida as elsewhere, know that the last thing they want is to discourage reading, which is precisely the effect that H. 765 would have. They also know that nothing could be more preposterous than to require that people who pay for books subsidize those who borrow them for free.
One bookseller asked a Florida legislator how so irresponsible a bill could be given serious consideration and was told, "We just wanted to put anything on paper" -- they just wanted to get a start, that is, in the right direction. But the Public Library Financial Assistance Act of 1986 -- so grandiose a name for so picayune a bill -- is anything but the right direction. This is no sober, responsible solution to the library system's financial difficulties, but an evasion of such a solution; it's a shot in the dark, fired with the hopes that no one will hear it and that it will hit the target before anyone notices. Unfortunately for its sponsors, Florida's booksellers have heard it, and they are fighting back vigorously.
The real problem -- if Florida's legislators can stomach a brief lecture by a former resident of the state who still has a deep affection for it -- is that Florida political leaders have failed to exercise leadership on the critical question of state taxes. Florida ranks 40th among the states in per-capita state taxes, in large measure because it has steadfastly refused to impose an income tax on its citizens -- a policy that encourages immigration at a time when overburdened Florida should be seeking population stabilization. If the state had an income tax, it would have the wherewithal to solve such questions as library finances within an orderly, comprehensive financial structure. Instead it plays things fast and loose, juggling sales taxes and other ostensibly painless revenue systems. That it now proposes to impose a tax on books and magazines -- a syntax, if you will -- proves nothing so much as that irresponsibility eventually leads to desperation. H. 765 is so petty and punitive that even the Florida legislature may be unable to swallow it.