WASHINGTON—Travelers and businesses will keep paying more to cover agricultural inspections in a post-Sept. 11 move that's stirring up the anti-tax sentiment normally cultivated by the Bush administration.
This time, though, it's the administration that's advocated squeezing more money from the public. And while the Agriculture Department speaks of modest "fee adjustments," others hear the ringing of a new tax.
"This is wrong, and increasing the taxes should be a crime," complained Dawn Loomis, a resident of Sylmar, Calif. "I believe in paying taxes for necessary government expenses, but it is time the government takes account of itself and reduce costs everywhere before it increases taxes."
Nonetheless, citing inflation and increased security burdens, the Agriculture Department on Thursday finalized higher fees for inspection and quarantine services. The higher fees will bring in an additional $100 million a year, though Agriculture Department officials stress that the effect on travelers and businesses will be "very small."
For instance, international air travelers are paying $5 per ticket for inspection services. They used to pay $3.10 per ticket. Domestic aircraft are also being charged higher fees, as are commercial truckers, railroads and ships.
Commercial trucks entering from Mexico, for instance, used to pay $4.75 per inspection or $95 for decals. They now pay $5.25 per inspection or $105 for decals. The money funds the corps of inspectors who, among other responsibilities, screen more than 600,000 commercial trucks entering the country annually.
"It may be that the benefits are not immediately apparent to the general public because the chief benefit is the harm prevented by having these inspection services in place," the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service noted Thursday.
The fee increase allows the government to have the resources necessary to do the job, agreed Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual, based in Exeter, Calif. Nelson cautioned, though, that growers in California's Central Valley had worried that agricultural inspections were getting shortchanged amid the search for terror weapons.
"I'll give them this," Nelsen said Thursday. "There is now a better mind-set . . . about agricultural inspections."
With its final action Thursday, the agency locked in higher fees that were initially imposed following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Since the attacks, border and port inspectors have been scrutinizing more cargo.
That takes money, with agricultural inspection costs exceeding $327 million in 2004, when the Agriculture Department temporarily raised the inspection fees. Officials also solicited public comments about making the higher fees permanent.
The comments came, in truckloads. Loomis was among 315 individuals, trade association representatives, airline executives and state officials to weigh in—often with excoriating anti-tax emotions.
Neal Heurung of St. Paul Park, Minn., lamented that "airline passengers already shoulder huge tax burdens," while George Del Monte of Bradenton, Fla., criticized the work of "unelected bureaucrats" acting without "a single vote by Congress." Twyla Bacon, who lives just east of Wichita in the town of Leon, Kan., denounced the fee hike as "a sneaky thing to do" to airline passengers.
"Elected officials are constantly seeking ways to expand government while avoiding accountability for the costs," Fort Worth, Texas, resident George Jenista charged.
While many individual comments bear the marks of an organized campaign, larger organizations weighed in critically as well. The Air Transport Association warned that higher fees and costs were "undermining any sort of financial recovery by U.S. airlines."
In this kind of political fight, words matter. First and foremost, Agriculture Department officials strenuously dispute use of the word "tax."
"A tax is money paid by the general public to support general government operations," officials explained. "A user fee is money paid for a specific government service by the beneficiary of that service."
The higher fees, officials added, help support the one-third boost in agricultural inspection staffing that occurred after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Officials also want to store up a larger reserve fund.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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