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For the week of April 11 through April 17, 2001

‘User Fee’ outrage simmers

Within a few months, the nation’s capital city will be crawling with tourists — especially student groups — hop-scotching as sightseers between public monuments and galleries and museums maintained by their government.

Freeze frame that picture right there, then add this:

Several hundred of these visitors are stopped at the entrance to the White House and asked at the door if they’ve paid their "user fee" for access to "the people’s house."

Sound outrageous?

Not if the trend to "user fees" continues in Washington.

Members of Congress, now aided by Bush budget writers, are shifting more responsibility for costs of operating and maintaining public properties to "user fees" and away from the general federal budget that has been the traditional succor for national historic and recreational sites.

So, why not "user fees" for visiting the White House, the Washington Monument, the U.S. Mint, the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, Arlington Cemetery? (You can bet your last dollar that members of Congress won’t levy a "user fee" on themselves for the parking spaces at Reagan National Airport reserved for them.)

"User fees" for merely hiking on public lands in the West began as a three-year test. Now it’s nearly five years old — a sure sign the "test" is here to stay.

Because Congress has been choking off appropriations, the Forest and National Park services have been compelled to use "user fees" not for the promised improvement of federal lands but for routine operations.

As Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd discovered while poking through government reports, the Forest Service collected $88.4 million in user fees last year, spending $67.5 million, of which more than 80 percent went to "repair and maintenance, interpretation and signing, facility enhancement, fee collection and annual operation categories."

Judd’s peek at the National Park Service’s ledger showed this — of $133 million collected in user fees last year, 21 percent alone ($27.7 million) was spent just on collecting the fees. Incidentally, the reports showed that user fee collections have been dropping since the "test" began.

Public resentment is boiling over user fees to simply enjoy public lands.

It’s bound to explode into a seething geyser of public rage when the user fee "test" moves into the next phase — prosecution of hapless taxpayers who haven’t bought their passes and are caught strolling in a tranquil woodland with their children and pet dog.

Meanwhile, while Congress saddles taxpayers with user fees to simply enjoy their own lands, Washington’s politicians continue to coddle influential industries with indefensibly low and obsolete extraction fees on minerals they harvest from public lands and then transform into billions of dollars in profits.



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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.