AOPA wound up an active year in the halls of state government from Florida to Washington state by savoring victories on issues ranging from defeating onerous aircraft taxes to keeping dangerous structures away from airports and aircraft. Efforts to work with state government bought more time for reforming regulatory proposals, thus sparing flight schools and students from crippling bureaucratic burdens in California, and ending those concerns in Arizona.
AOPA, allied with regional pilots associations and national and state aviation associations, went to work to counter a variety of aviation tax initiatives—in each case pointing out the economic harm that could arise from a state’s attempts to impose onerous levies on pilots and aircraft.
AOPAworked vigorously with aviation-minded lawmakers and local pilots for several weeks this past session to head off a proposed 0.5 percent annual aircraft excise tax in Washington state. Had the revenue-raising measure passed, it would have imposed the highest state tax rates for registering many types of aircraft—with increases of up to 32,000 percent.
AOPA Vice President of Airports and State Advocacy Greg Pecoraro, who paid a visit to lawmakers in Olympia during the effort, said the involvement of AOPA members played a key role in fighting the tax plan. Members warned policymakers that enforcement costs and the impact of lost aviation business on the state’s economy would do more harm than would be gained in higher taxation.
Despite several attempts by the state’s House of Representatives to insert the tax hike in the bill over Senate objections, a conference report that did not include the tax ultimately prevailed.
In Florida, May 27 marked an independence day of sorts for aircraft owners. That was the day Gov. Charlie Crist signed House Bill 173 into law and created a permanent exemption for visiting aircraft from the state’s 6-percent use tax on the total value of the aircraft.
Until then, out-of-state aircraft owners could have been subject to the tax just for visiting the state within six months of purchasing an aircraft, even though they had already paid the sales tax for their own state. The exemption went into effect July 1.
AOPA Director of State Government Affairs Mark Kimberling and AOPA Florida Regional Representative Nelson Rhodes spent several weeks in the legislative halls of Tallahassee, along with Florida Aviation Trades Association (FATA) representative Eric Prutsman, to resolve the issue.
They pointed out that possibly incurring a huge tax bill just for visiting the state in a recently purchased aircraft had deterred pilots from all over the nation from visiting Florida over the past few years—even beyond the first six months of ownership. AOPA first encountered the problem in 2006, and worked with the FATA, the Florida Airports Council (FAC), and key legislators to correct the unprecedented tax practice.
“I am confident this legislation maintains Florida’s stellar reputation as a business and tourist-friendly state,” Crist said.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a measure on Oct. 19—supported by AOPA—that delayed until July 1, 2011, implementation of regulations made controversial by their destructive implications for the state’s flight training industry.
“The California Private Postsecondary Act of 2009 was intended to protect the financial wellbeing of students who seek an education at a postsecondary school, but it was not designed with flight schools specifically in mind; as a result, the regulations imposed a financial burden that many flight schools would have been unable to bear. In the coming months as lawmakers revisit the rules, AOPA will work to ensure that the outcome will not inflict damage on the already fragile training industry as the original proposal would have,” AOPA reported at the time of the signing.
The action gives AOPA, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), and state allies time to help lawmakers determine a way to offer some measure of consumer protection for students without crippling the flight training industry.
The law in question required flight schools to pay multiple new administrative fees, and open their books to regulators as the state seeks to improve business accountability and protect students. For some flight schools the costs of meeting the requirements would have been insurmountable.
"This bill signing marks an important day for GA in California as it will keep countless future pilots in the air and, importantly, keep thousands of instructors, mechanics, and other aviation personnel working in this troubled economy,” Kimberling said.
In a related development, an Arizona agency clarified rules exempting Part 61 flight schools from a similar measure. On Aug. 26, after hearing from AOPA Western Regional Representative Stacy Howard and a number of local pilots, the state’s board for private postsecondary education concluded that flight schools were not subject to rules and fees intended for private vocational programs.
In Oklahoma, a law took effect that strengthened requirements that land use around airports be compatible with aviation for public safety’s sake. On Oct. 20, the Oklahoma Aircraft Pilot and Passenger Protection Act went into effect, giving the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission authority to regulate certain construction in designated approach areas
Tall obstacles—cell phone towers, wind turbines, or other structures—built too close to airports create a hazard for pilots and those on the ground. Oklahoma AOPA members got together to protect their airports from obstructions by contacting their state legislators and urging them to pass the bill.
“In the final analysis, passage of the Aircraft Pilot and Passenger Protection Act is about protecting life—of the flying public and those that live or work around an airport,” said Oklahoma Aeronautics Director and Chairman of the National Association of State Aviation Officials Vic Bird. “Preventing the encroachment of incompatible land use due to its height or purpose is a critical step in this most important purpose.”
AOPA Southwest Region Representative Shelly DeZevallos met with lawmakers in the capital to support the bill, and AOPA, once again, called on members to get involved—by contacting their legislators—through an Action Alert.
Kimberling described the legislation as “a sterling example for all states.”
“With the increasing prevalence of tall man-made obstructions all over the country, this legislation provides a good model to ensure that development of this nature will not undermine aviation safety,” he said.
Notable efforts in other states included an averted increase in the fuel excise tax in Michigan, and the preservation of the aviation sales tax exemption in Massachusetts. All told, in what amounted to be the toughest state economic environment in the history of AOPA, no new state taxes were levied upon GA. So what was the key to this success in the face of such strong headwinds?
“Grassroots engagement among our membership—without question—was paramount to our success at the state level this year,” said Kimberling. This high level of grassroots participation will be critical as we gear up for another potentially challenging year.”