The White House and other Democrats call it a penalty, money that will be paid by the very few who will fail to follow the dictates of the law.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts called it a tax, a constitutionally proper course for the Congress to take.
Republicans, disappointed in the court’s ruling, found a silver lining in Roberts’ word choice. Suddenly, “tax” and “Obamacare” were joined at the hip. Unfortunately for them, the Mitt Romney campaign was initially reluctant to engage in this wordplay, perhaps because Romney is the father of Romneycare, with its mandate to buy health insurance and penalty (or is it a tax?) for failing to comply. By Wednesday, Romney flip-flopped, deciding that, yes, it is a tax.
No one would blame policymakers in Montgomery for opting to stand mute. Alabama lawmakers have long decried taxes while quietly raising fees for licenses from activities as varied as marriage and fishing. The same applies to penalties, which continue to rise for traffic violations, business before courts and many other state functions.
The rhetorical path is tricky. Argue that the Affordable Care Act carries a tax for failing to comply and Alabama lawmakers risk opening a line of questions they aren’t comfortable with, especially in light of the 2012 legislative session that increased a host of court-associated fees.
To Alabama residents who are paying more money for a traffic ticket or filing fees before courts, the labels are relatively meaningless. They are paying more money because the state Legislature passed and the governor OK’d a law increasing what lawmakers prefer to call fees and what could easily be labeled a tax, especially by the payers.
If what’s paid for not buying health insurance is a tax, what would we call the money paid by a fisherman cited for a lack of a fishing license? Hint: Very few would call it a “fish tax.”