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Obama’s Budget Calls For “User Charges”

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet and a skunk by any other name would smell as bad. So, too, user fees by any other name will still be a problem for general aviation. President Obama’s proposed budget for 2010 changed the name from “user fees” to “direct user charges” and wants them to be levied in 2011.

Many in general aviation had hoped that Obama would not follow previous administrations, which had tried to replace excise taxes with fees. But that hope went out the window with release of budget figures.

The renewed call for user fees was met with disappointment by all of general aviation and by a leading member of the House of Representatives. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said user fees have been introduced several times in the past by the Office of Management and Budget of various administrations but have not been adopted by the Congress. “I believe the current system of aviation excise taxes has proven to be a stable and efficient source of funding for our aviation system,” he said. Oberstar is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

General aviation organizations were quick to restate their opposition to the fee system, which many see as impractical to implement, expensive to collect, and an increased risk of accidents by tempting some pilots to fly without contact with the FAA in order to avoid excessive expense.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) said user fees, if enacted, would amount to $7 billion in 2011, about half of the FAA’s total budget. A slight increase in the excise fuel taxes would be more palatable to general aviation users and more efficient to collect. National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) said it believes that “operational user fees have no place in the funding plan for the FAA.” The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) expressed hope that the Congress “will reject the proposal as they’ve done previously.” GA groups declared their determination to work together to defeat the proposed funding process by whatever name it might be called.

Reauthorization of the FAA adds to the uncertainty of the user fee struggle. The FAA has been operating under temporary authorizations for more than a year. The House passed a reauthorization bill last year and included a prohibition against charging user fees. This bogged down in the Senate. What might happen in this session of Congress about reauthorization and the user fee issue is keeping all of general aviation political workers concerned and busy pushing their position of opposition.

Whatever might happen in the coming weeks, the struggle over user fees seems destined to continue through coming months.

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