'Christmas tree tax' spar returns

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Christmas tree farmers have renewed their push for the creation of a marketing and research program that conservative critics have dubbed a “Christmas tree tax.”

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2011 moved to create a marketing and research program for Christmas trees that would have been similar to the “Got Milk?” or “Pork: The other white meat” campaigns.

But the promotional push was put on hold amid an uproar from conservative groups and anti-tax advocates.

Farmers haven’t given up on the idea, and are now pushing to have the program authorized in the farm bill legislation that is being negotiated by the House and Senate. They say they’re at risk of being run out of the market, and insist the program would involve “zero tax dollars.”

“Fresh cut Christmas Tree producers have long been concerned about losing market share to artificial tree makers and foreign imports,” National Christmas Tree Association spokesman Rick Dungey told The Hill in an email. “There are zero tax dollars involved here. USDA bills all costs associated with these promotional efforts to the industry groups that create the boards.”

The Christmas tree industry’s message stands in contrast to activists at conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union, which argue the costs will trickle down to the consumer. They say the campaign would force some companies to take part in a scheme that they want nothing to do with.

“The problem is that you have some in industry using the force of the government and the government basically being the enforcer, being the middle-man, to compel others within the industry to get along and to go along with this scheme, even against their will,” said Heritage Foundation research fellow Daren Bakst. “They have to pay a tax on the Christmas trees.”

The USDA’s commodity research and promotion programs, often known as checkoff programs, are overseen by the federal government but funded by the industry, and allow farmers and producers to pool their resources. Twenty industries currently fund their own checkoff programs, from beef to milk to processed raspberries.

Christmas tree farmers say that they need the program to counter market trends that have led people away from fresh pine.

“There are more and more households that may be making a decision to display a petroleum-based import from China instead of a U.S. farm-raised product,” said Craig Regelbrugge, who represents the industry in Washington as vice president for government affairs with the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

“The other concern is that there are more and more households that may decide not to display a tree at holiday time altogether.”

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 20 years ago about 50 percent of American households bought a Christmas tree each year. In 2012, only about 23 percent of households did.

The checkoff program would also help spur innovation in farming methods, advocates say, which would result in healthier trees that retain their needles for longer. 

The USDA-backed promotional program would cost about 15 cents per tree sold. Smaller producers that sell fewer than 500 trees a year would not be required to pay in.

But Bakst of Heritage said that the size of the fee is largely irrelevant.

“The costs may not be mind-boggling for a Christmas tree but, first of all, it’s the principle of it. Plus, with anything, it’s just death by 1,000 cuts,” he said.

The fight over the program began in 2011, when after two years of pushing, an industry task force convinced the USDA to create a checkoff program for fresh cut Christmas trees. 

The reaction from conservatives was swift and loud.          

“I think the absolutely faulty narrative that some worked to established in the press was ‘There goes President Obama, now he’s taxing your Christmas tree,’” said Regelbrugge.

Just nine days after the program was announced, the administration changed course. The USDA issued an indefinite stay on the program “to provide additional time for the Department to reach out to the Christmas Tree industry and the public to explain how a research and promotion program is a producer driven program to support American farmers.”

Since then, the program has been in a holding pattern. But an amendment from Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in the House’s version of the farm bill would end USDA’s delay and force the agency to get the program going.

House and Senate negotiators were unable to hammer out a final deal on the farm bill before leaving Washington earlier this month, but are aiming to unveil a final package early in the New Year.

Supporters say it only makes sense for the Christmas tree provision to make the final cut.

“I think from a farm policy standpoint, it’s a no-brainer that this industry which has done its due diligence and gone through due process ought to have the same opportunity to employ the kinds of programs that exist for a couple of dozen other industries,” said Regelbrugge.

If the lawmakers do tell the USDA to start up the program, Bakst predicted it would be more expensive to buy a tree at Christmas time.

“It’s going to make Christmas just a little less happy,” he said.