Battle over user fees resumes

 - March 30, 2009, 5:09 AM

House aviation subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) has joined Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, in opposing an Obama Administration plan to institute user fees to balance the FAA budget starting in Fiscal Year 2010.

According to a budget summary released in late February, the White House “proposes repealing some aviation excise taxes and replacing these taxes with direct user charges.”

“These concepts are stale leftovers from the Bush Administration that are not supported in Congress,” said Costello. “We should not be wasting time rehashing bad ideas. Consensus was reached on financing issues last year, and we need to move forward quickly to pass an FAA reauthorization bill. I look forward to discussing this issue with the Administration, but let me be clear: user fees on general aviation are a non-starter.”

In several administrations, Oberstar noted, the Office of Management and Budget has proposed aviation user fees and Congress has not adopted them.

“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. Both Costello and Oberstar opposed the user-fee approach in the previous session of Congress as well.
On March 5, the full T&I Committee approved H.R.915, the “FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009,” to provide $70 billion to fund the FAA and aviation infrastructure programs for the next four years (FY09 through FY12).

The FAA Reauthorization Act provides $16.2 billion for the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), $13.4 billion for FAA facilities and equipment, and $1 billion for research, engineering and development. The funding will enable the FAA to modernize its ATC system and improve capacity at the nation’s airports. In addition, the bill provides $39.9 billion for FAA operations.

“The historic funding levels authorized will accelerate the implementation of air traffic control modernization and the Next Generation Air Transportation System,” said Oberstar. “Ensuring [that] our airports have the appropriate tools to increase capacity and improving the quality of air service received by Essential Air Service program communities are also priorities addressed by this bill.”

The FAA funding bill now moves on to the next committee. While the T&I Committee believes that aviation excise taxes and not user fees should continue to fund the FAA and modernization of the ATC system, taxes are the jurisdiction of the House Ways and Means Committee.

In 2007, that committee accepted the recommendation of the T&I Committee and passed a companion bill that would have funded the FAA from fuel taxes and other taxes paid into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund. Those bills stalled in the Senate.
The Ways and Means Committee has indicated it won’t begin to consider this year’s funding measures until after it can examine the President’s budget. The White House said the budget detail will be on Capitol Hill by early this month.

The FAA has continued under a series of temporary measures; the latest one was set to expire at the end of last month. Oberstar has said he would reluctantly support another temporary funding extension until the end of September to allow AIP funding to continue.

GA lobbying groups are united in opposition to user fees, and AOPA president Craig Fuller said, “We know that we have a rough fight ahead of us.”