When is a tax not a tax? Call it a `user fee'

To raise new revenues this year, the Reagan administration wants to charge taxpayers $7.5 billion to use many government services. User fees will play an important part in the White House's strategy to foil a tax increase by the Democratic-controlled Congress, which must lop at least $50 billion off the federal deficit this year to comply with the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law.

Although the President insists user fees are not tax increases, these ``revenue enhancements,'' if approved by Congress, could reach into many pocketbooks. For example:

Prospective homeowners will have to pay an extra $2,200 on a $65,000 Federal Housing Administration mortgage.

A sergeant in the armed forces reserves will pay $103.82 a year in social security taxes on the pay he receives from required ``weekend warrior'' drills. He now pays nothing.

A week-long vacation in Yellowstone National Park could cost a person an extra $10 to get into the park.

Every traveler going abroad would pay an extra dollar per ticket to fund the United States Travel and Tourism Administration.

Other new fees include extra taxes on tips for waiters and waitresses, Coast Guard fees for people plucked off the high seas, and fees for Small Business Administration loans.

The Office of Management and Budget argues that ``narrow groups'' of individuals benefit from such government services and therefore should pay for these.

Congressman William Gray (D) of Pennsylvania, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, calls user fees ``Taxscam.'' He insists user fees are tax increases.

``The same way they [members of the administration] lied about Iran, they are lying about tax increases,'' he says. On Wednesday, the House voted down a Republican proposal to bar new tax increases over the next two years. In addition, the Senate began budget hearings.

Although Congress previously has closed the door to many user fees, observers believe Congress will start adopting them. ``I think we'll see more receptivity than we've seen before,'' says Norman Ornstein, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Congress has made many of the difficult cuts in the budget, Mr. Ornstein points out, so now it must come up with ways to raise new revenues. To wall off programs from further cuts, he says, ``the trust fund approach could become the wave of the future.''

Barry Bosworth, a former Carter administration official now at the Brookings Institution, likewise sees Congress adopting user fees. ``I think they will broaden them out into the excise area,'' he says, ``and this will be the opening wedge on a debate over a national sales tax.''

In the 1950s, excise taxes were the main way Congress raised taxes. The taxes were fixed, however, and not a percentage of the selling price of the item taxed. Thus, government excise tax revenues fell as inflation pushed government spending higher.

There will be opposition to user fees. For example, the Reagan budget proposes a customs user fee on imports. ``I don't see paying someone to rip through my luggage,'' says Daniel Mitchell of the Citizens for a Sound Economy. ``I would argue that they need to make real budget cuts.''

Those who would pay the user fees have also begun firing salvos. The Mortgage Bankers Association of America, the Federal National Mortgage Association, and other housing-related organizations held a press conference Wednesday to denounce the measures. They were quick to point out the costs to individuals. Mortgage banking officials estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 individuals would either have to postpone buying a house or be unable to afford it if they had to pay higher up-front costs because of the Reagan proposals.

Still others argue that current user fees are not working. For example, the US charges an airport user fee to upgrade air traffic control and airport facilities. Mr. Bosworth notes that fund's surplus is now more than $1 billion, which the administration will not release. ``This is a problem if you use these things for general revenue purposes,'' he comments.

Other user fees would make Veterans Administration loans more expensive and would charge for federal meat and poultry inspection. In addition, there would be user fees for products and services from the Census Bureau and the International Trade Administration.

In some cases, user fees already exist. Visitors to the Statue of Liberty will pay $1 this year to help the National Park Service pay back a loan from the government for rehabilitation.

Noting this, an aide to Gray says, ``You won't find this fee on a visit to the Liberty Bell,'' which is in Gray's district.

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