Should it be the government's role to promote fresh Christmas trees?
One of Christmas' most recognizable symbols apparently needs a PR campaign -- and a new tax to pay for it.
The Obama administration has imposed a 15-cent tax on Christmas trees in order to pay for a new board tasked with promoting the Christmas tree industry.
The new fee and board were announced in the Federal Register on Tuesday, to be effective Wednesday. According to the Agriculture Department announcement, the government will impose a 15-cent-per-tree charge on "producers and importers" of fresh Christmas trees, provided they sell or import more than 500 trees a year.
The change quickly drew opposition from Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who vowed to fight what he described as a "Grinch" move by the administration. "It is shocking that President Obama tried to sneak through this new tax on Christmas trees," Scalise said in a statement Wednesday.
The program and fee, though, were supported by some in the Christmas tree industry. The money is not meant to pay down the debt or fund any other program. The Agriculture Department-imposed tax is designed to go back into the new Christmas Tree Promotion Board.
The board, proposed earlier this year, is the culmination of a years-long effort by the fresh Christmas tree industry to promote itself, according to the background provided in the Federal Register. The industry has faced increasing competition from producers of artificial trees, but efforts to collect voluntary contributions for a fresh-tree marketing campaign have repeatedly run out of funding. So the government stepped in to mandate a fee to support the promotion board.
Heritage Foundation Vice President David Addington, who first reported on the rule on his blog Tuesday evening, said there are two problems with the new fee. First, he said it's likely the 15 percent fee will be passed on to consumers. Second, he said it's inappropriate for the government to be putting its "thumb on the scale," helping out the fresh-tree sellers and not the artificial-tree sellers.
"If it's one thing I think the free market could handle, it's letting people decide what kind of tree they want to buy for Christmas," Addington told FoxNews.com.
But Agriculture Department spokesman Michael T. Jarvis defended the program, saying it's along the lines of over 20 other promotional programs supported by the department, such as the "got milk" campaign.
"It's worked great for beef, pork, chicken, eggs," he added.
Jarvis also insisted the fee does not count as a tax, since the industry is effectively "assessing themselves."
"This one's not a tax," he said.
The industry itself further rejected the claim that the fee would be passed onto consumers. The National Christmas Tree Association said in a statement that the program "is not expected to have any impact on the final price consumers pay for their Christmas tree."
The group said most growers who weighed in on the proposal were in favor of it.
According to the Federal Register, the new board is supposed to launch a "program of promotion, research, evaluation, and information designed to strengthen the Christmas tree industry's position in the marketplace."
As part of that job, the board has been charged with improving the image of both Christmas trees and the industry itself. After three years, an industry-wide referendum will be held to determine whether to renew the program.