By Kathryn A. Wolfe
January 31, 2011
As the White House prepares its fiscal 2012 budget proposal and the Senate begins debate on a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, lobbyists representing general aviation interests are mobilizing to fend off any attempt to impose new user fees.
There is a long-running battle between the airline industry and companies that make or use private planes over who should pay how much to maintain the air traffic control system.
The airlines favor user fees as a way to make general aviation pay its fair share. Business aviation favors maintaining the current fuel tax financing system.
So far, there is no indication the administration will propose user fees. Last year, in fact, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hinted that President Obama has no appetite for them.
But many general aviation and business aviation interests who fought previous user fee proposals say they remain vigilant.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association already has been working Capitol Hill hard. A Jan. 21 letter to Obama backed by the association said user fees “would be a step backward in our efforts to modernize our air traffic control system and fund FAA operations.”
The letter was signed by 116 lawmakers, including Reps. Tom Petri, R-Wis., and Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., the chairman and top-ranking minority member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation subcommittee.
“This is an issue that we have had bipartisan agreement on in recent years, and there is no reason to reconsider it,” Costello said in a separate statement.
But many lawmakers – including the newest members of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee – were not around almost three years ago when general aviation and business aviation interests won the last bruising fight over the issue.
That spat ended when the two sides and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers in both chambers agreed to drop the idea of a user fee and instead increase the tax rate on some aviation fuel. But the deal has never been written into law because Congress has not enacted an FAA reauthorization the past four years.
User fee opponents have renewed concern because there will be another attempt to pass an FAA bill in the 112th Congress, and an intense hunt is under way for ways to reduce the budget deficit without raising taxes. The idea of increasing the fuel tax could be reconsidered.
“We have this new Congress that came in the House under the mantra of no new taxes,” one general aviation lobbyist said. “And there are a lot of new members on Ways and Means. They may say, ‘Hey, this is a new tax. We’re not supporting it,’ with really no understanding because they’re new.”
In the Senate, an FAA reauthorization (S 223) identical to a bill that died at the end of the 111th Congress will be brought to the floor Monday. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said there will be an open amendment process, which means most anything can be considered.
At the end of last year, several issues were unresolved, including whether, and by how much, to increase long-distance flights to and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. A Senate Democratic aide said that issue remains unresolved and that Reid “caught everyone by surprise” by teeing up the bill for debate so soon.