User fees are like a weed you can never kill. That became readily apparent when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last month issued Federal User Fees: A Design Guide, a 49-page instruction manual to Congress and federal agencies on how to figure out when and how to charge for government “services.”
“The clear message here is that no matter how many times we beat back user fees for those aviation services that benefit the entire public, the ground remains fertile for fee attempts to spring up again,” said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs. “But our 415,000 members help us stay ahead.”
(User fees are out of the FAA funding legislation currently pending before Congress, but if that bill passes, the limited protection against fees would only last for the duration of the bill—about four years.)
The GAO created the user fee guide in response to a request from two House committees—Ways and Means (taxes) and Homeland Security. And it’s clear why they asked for it. As the GAO itself noted, “our current long-term simulations of the federal budget show ever-larger deficits. As funds become increasingly scarce and new priorities emerge, policymakers have demonstrated interest in user fees as a means of financing new and existing services.” The GAO said that federal user fee collections have grown some 69 percent since 1999, now accounting for $233 billion into the government’s budget.
The guide says that if use of a service is “voluntary” (e.g., entrance to a national park) and the benefits of the service accrue to a specific user, then a user fee is appropriate. If the program primarily benefits the public, it should be supported by general revenue (taxes). And if the program benefits both users and the public, it should be funded by fees and general revenues.
The distinction between a tax and a user fee is not always clear cut, according to the GAO. The aviation fuel tax could also be considered a user fee, because there is a correlation between how the amount of “services” used, and how much the user pays. (If you fly a bigger aircraft, you pay more to the government because you use more fuel.)
The cost of collecting a fee must also be considered, GAO says. The more precisely the government tries to calibrate the fee to the actual cost of providing the service to the individual user, the more expensive it becomes to collect. And the GAO says that there are sometimes public benefits to permitting one group of users to pay less than their pro-rated share.
The GAO guide did not specifically address the issue of FAA funding. And one of the committees that requested the guide—Ways and Means—has rejected aviation user fees on multiple occasions.
“Nevertheless, user fees are a threat that will never die,” said Cebula.