Wednesday, October 15, 2008

While I was away

While I was away there was some big news for cyclists. It was covered by just about every cycling-related blog I read, including:
So what was it that got all of these fellow-travelers off their bikes and onto their keyboards? The inclusion of the Bicycle Commuter Act as part of the gigantic outpouring of taxpayer money for the financial industry.

From the San Jose Mercury News (by way of Paul Dorn's blog):
Effective Jan. 1, people who use bicycles as their primary means of getting to work will be eligible to get up to $20 a month in tax-free payments from their employers for the costs of owning and operating a bike. Employers can deduct the payments as an expense from their federal taxes.
As a cyclist, I think this is a good thing. Not because $20.00 per month is really going to make a big difference, but because it puts bike commuters on equal footing as other commuters, if only in the eyes of the IRS (but really, is there a stronger indicator of reality than the IRS?). However, I have a couple of problems with the way it went down.

First - This is just one more piece of pork tossed into a bad piece of legislation to bribe (yeah, I'll say it) reticent members to vote for it. The leadership knew that they weren't going to get the votes they needed, so they added superfluous amendments like this one to get more people on board. That rubs me the wrong way. If the bail out was so important, why weren't more members willing to support it on its own merits? If bike commuters deserve equal treatment at the hands of the tax code, why couldn't the Act pass on its own merits. The obvious answer to both questions is that there wasn't enough support for either on its own, and only by pooling the supporters of two flawed pieces of legislation those supporters able to get them passed.

Second - I know I'm committing bike blogger sacrilege by questioning the need for laws relating to cyclists, specifically benefits for cyclists. The line of argument that a lot of advocates have made is that other commuters can get pre-tax money to buy mass-transit tickets, and cycling serves the same "greater good" by removing people from cars, so cyclists should be able to get the same pre-tax benefit to offset some of the affiliated costs. My concern is that this is demonstrating one of the worst characteristics of federal laws - unnecessary complication. There is a reason that the index for the 2008 Code of Federal Regulations is over 1,000 pages long. Rather than adding a new law for bike commuters, wouldn't it be better to remove things from the old law, specifically the parts that indicate the means of commuting? The whole idea is to allow commuters to use pre-tax money to pay their expenses, is there some reason that this should only apply to certain types of commuters, and if so, why?

All things being equal, it is a victory for cyclists that this has passed. Personally, I have reservations about the way it happened, but that's just me.

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