As this issue goes to press, Congress has taken significant steps towards establishing a means of financing the FAA and its modernization programs for the next four years. At this point, only the House of Representatives has agreed on a funding bill, H.R.2881. The Senate has been stalled by the user fee language in S.1300. Now it's well past the September 30 deadline that marked the end of the last funding authorization. This caused Congress to pass an extension of the "old" funding authorization that keeps the original setup: fuel taxes, airline passenger ticket taxes, and cargo waybill taxes at current rates. Which is fine with AOPA. In the meantime, unprecedented airline delays and airline traffic congestion at hub airports have been garnering much attention. Thanks to mass media exposure, the airspace system has become a near-daily focus of much public attention.
But on Capitol Hill, a tremendous amount of work lies ahead. As you'll recall from the first article in this series (see " FAA Funding Debate: Point of Order," March Pilot, page 73) there's a definite progression as a funding bill moves to final implementation.
On September 20, the House of Representatives passed H.R.2881—a reauthorization proposal that would raise money by significant increases in fuel taxes on Jet-A (from 21.8 cents to 35.9 cents per gallon) and an inflationary adjustment to avgas (from 19.3 cents to 24.1 cents per gallon) and keep airline taxes—including the fuel taxes paid by airlines—at their original levels.
Most important, the bill did not include user fees. And all of the money raised by general aviation fuel taxes would go toward air traffic control modernization.
AOPA endorsed this bill, as it stands now, the House of Representatives' has had its say in the FAA funding debate.
But there is a potential fly in the ointment when it comes to H.R.2881 and a future negotiation with the Senate. That's because it includes a provision that would force the FAA to reopen the air traffic contollers contract for negotiation, and change a provision in law affecting express truck drivers.
President Bush has said that he will veto a bill that mandates these labor provisions.
As of this writing, the full Senate had yet to pass S.1300, the Senate's version of the reauthorization bill. The House and Senate bills are very similar in many respects, with one glaring exception—S.1300 includes provisions for a $25-per-flight user fee charge.
AOPA opposes user fees, so members will likely be called upon to influence key Senators to strike the user-fee clause from the Senate bill.
Assuming a compromise is reached striking user fees, the legislation would be ready for debate on the Senate floor. The Senate Finance Committee has approved a tax structure similar to that in the House bill that sets the stage to eliminate the user fee.
Once the House and Senate bills are finalized, it will be time for a House-Senate conference committee to convene. The conference committee's job is to iron out the differences between the two proposals. Once the president signs the conference bill, the bill becomes law, the FAA's funding resumes for the next four years, and the FAA funding debate is over—for now.
But let's not count our chickens before they're hatched. As it stands now, the Senate must concur on its bill, the conference committee must agree on a common proposal, and President Bush must sign it. Time will tell if he'll overcome his objections to any union negotiation language in the final bill. If he doesn't, and Bush vetoes the conference bill, we're back to square one.
And the FAA funding debate will start all over again. It's a scenario that no one in the aviation community wants.
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