A poll tax, sometimes called a capitation tax, is a tax of a sum certain on individuals. Now I invite you to imagine a world in which you are required to pay a poll tax to insurance companies. This is the world that Sen. Max Baucus and every other opponent of the public option envision. Without a public option, Congress will have given the insurance companies the power to demand however much money they want from you and to do so every year until you die. If you refuse to pay the insurance companies, you will be punished with fines and possible jail time. A tax by any other name...
Of course, the fact is that without a public option but with a personal mandate, the legislation itself is likely unconstitutional. It will be an illegal delegation of Congress's power of taxation. Only instead of the usual unconstitutional delegation of powers, i.e. to the Executive branch of government, this time it will be a delegation to the Corporate "branch" of government.
Why would Congress try something so cynical? Probably because they don't understand what it is they are doing. I doubt they have thought through the legal implications of no public option. They're too focused on costs and trying to assuage the town hall one-percenters. Some might also see it as the equivalent of car insurance mandates. But there are two key differences with car insurance mandates. First, you aren't required to drive. Now while it's true that it's impractical not to drive in many areas of the country, the fact remains that if you stop driving you don't need to buy car insurance anymore. With the personal mandate, you are only released from it when you die. Second, car insurance mandates are state mandates, not federal. The Constitution is an interesting document in that its operating principle is that the federal government only has the powers granted to it. Most other governments in history took the position that the central government was all-powerful and that local governments only had the power the central government gave to them. As a result of our union of states approach, state governments have more powers than the federal government does. So while a state government might be able to get away with it, the federal government couldn't. And you could make a strong argument that a state government trying to give private companies the power to tax citizens would be violating the Constitutional guarantee of a republican form of government.
At the end of the day, ordinary citizens ought to be up in arms at the very idea that the government is seriously considering ceding the power to tax to private companies. That they aren't yet is probably because nobody has explained it to them that way yet. That's my thoughts, anyway. I'm happy to listen to yours. And if this thing passes with a personal mandate and without a public option, I'll see you all in jail, too. Because I'd rather go to prison than be taxed by a private company.