What tree growers want for Christmas: a 'tax'

@CNNMoney November 9, 2011: 4:23 PM ET
Christmas tree 'tax' aimed at helping growers

The Obama administration is backing a plan that would establish a 15-cent Christmas tree 'tax' on growers - with their approval.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Yes, Virginia, there was supposed to be a Christmas tree "tax" -- and it's just what the people who will pay the tax wanted. But its fate is as up in the air as Santa's sleigh at midnight.

The Obama administration is backing a plan requiring U.S. Christmas tree growers to pay 15 cents per natural tree sold; imported producers will pay 20 cents per tree. The revenue would go exclusively toward a program that will research and promote fresh-cut Christmas trees in the United States.

But an outcry from conservative critics resulted in the Agriculture Department delaying implementation and revisiting the fee.

The Christmas tree farmers sought the levy. They have been hit by the increase in popularity of artificial and plastic trees over the past several decades, and they want to find a way to keep their businesses -- mostly small family farms -- going.

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"I think with this program, it is going to be a positive and build up our business," said Sherry Severt Taylor, the daughter of the owner of Severt Trees in Elk Creek, Va. Severt has tree farms in Virginia and North Carolina.

"Individually, we can't afford this exposure. But as a collective group, it's going to help, and we need this help because of the artificial trees," Taylor added.

But the idea that the administration is behind the 15-cent fee led to an outcry, particularly among politicians and the social media. And, according to media reports, that outcry led to a delay and re-evaluation of the levy.

The outcry was fierce.

"The administration's new Christmas tree tax and ad campaign is clear evidence of misaligned and misguided priorities in Washington," said Robert Aderholt, a Republican congressman from Alabama, in a news release.

Jim DeMint, Republican senator from South Carolina, dedicated an entire blog post as a criticism of the fee. The post, which is titled "Crony Capitalism, Christmas Trees, and the Stupidest Tax of All Time," rips the administration's plan apart.

The blog ask, "does anyone in America -- anyone? -- believe that Christmas trees have a bad image that needs taxpayer-subsidized improvement?"

Sen. DeMint says the administration's "scam" has gone too far and "public backlash will force Congress to shut down the Christmas Tree Promotion Board and repeal the single stupidest tax of all time."

The administration defended the idea.

"I can tell you unequivocally that the Obama administration is not taxing Christmas trees," said Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, in confirming the delay and review. "What's being talked about here is an industry group deciding to impose fees on itself to fund a promotional campaign, similar to how the dairy producers have created the 'Got Milk?' campaign."

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There are more than 12,000 farms in the United States that grow and sell Christmas trees. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the average price for a fresh-cut Christmas tree was $36.12 last year, and the group says customers shouldn't seen an increase in the price because of the tax.

Since 1966, the nation has had research and promotion boards, the first one being for cotton during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Other products that have research and promotion boards include beef, pork, peanuts, popcorn, Hass avocados, milk, eggs, cotton, watermelon and blueberries.

The Agriculture Department did not return calls to explain what it would do to revisit the plan.

--CNN's Dan Lothian contributed to this report To top of page

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