Power to Tax Involves the Power to Destroy (Amusement Arcades Edition)


Video game
Jonathan Sloan

In 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall famously commented, "the power to tax involves the power to destroy" on his way to ruling that it's too dangerous to allow states the authority to extract revenue from the federal government. And it's no shocker that the perils posed by the tax power to the federal government are orders of magnitude worse when inflicted on individuals and businesses. Unfortunately, John Marshall didn't spread his sense of mercy beyond the banks of the Potomac to others who might find a similar dagger to their throats—such as Brandon Spencer, the owner of an amusement arcade in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Andrew Staub at the PA Independent has the story:

The small borough of Hanover has long been championed as the Snack Food Capital of the World, but there's no such grand proclamation about the small York County town's nightlife.

These days, though, a blast from the past is helping change the downtown dynamic, but local officials could derail the momentum.  The borough wants the TimeLine Arcade, which moved into a former bank building just off the borough square last October, to pay a massive amusement tax.

The owner of the arcade, Brandon Spencer, declined to pay what he said would be a nearly $6,000 fee. That's left the borough council pondering whether it should change a four-decade-old ordinance to make sure it applies to a more modern world.

Staub points out that Hanover's downtown is rebuilding after a period of decline—with Spencer given much of the credit by others for spurring the revival with his museum-style arcade. He charges by the hour to play his collection of classic pinball and video games. Because his machines don't take coins, he hasn't had to pay the "tax of $50 upon each coin-operated amusement device" that dates back to the days when Space Invaders was in every pizza joint.

Well, he didn't have to pay it until the town decided, fuck it, they'll just send him a bill adding up to three months' worth of electricity costs anyway.

The kicker, though, is Council President John Gerken's reaction to the news that the tax is unaffordable for the arcade. "It's not government's job to ensure that people stay in business, you know what I'm saying? The laws have to be enforced, whether you like it or not."

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also told us, "a violation of the law is a violation of the law," after cops killed a man over cigarette taxes.

So the sentiment isn't confined to some burg in Pennsylvania.

And if a law or tax happens to destroy, I guess that's just too damned bad.