Needed: Fair Postage for Nonprofits

BACK in February, Americans grumblingly dug 4 cents deeper into their pockets to buy a first-class stamp. What many don't realize is that the rise in mail costs hasn't stopped. Perhaps the more important (though less visible) story is the huge increase for second- and third-class nonprofit mailers - a 25 to 40 percent hike. That's a lot of money in any year for any group. But it hits nonprofits especially hard. These are the multifarious volunteer organizations - the churches, museums, charities, the musical ensembles, human rights outfits, soup kitchens, and cultural and educational journals - that in large part make up the "thousand points of light" President Bush declares essential to the fabric of American civic life. This newspaper, for example, is one of them.

Although the increase was stiff, most nonprofits took it. What nonprofit mailers did not anticipate, however, and what they and their constituencies are rightly up in arms about today, is yet another rate hike (10 percent) that Congress and the US Postal Service Board of Governors may impose on nonprofits. That would go into effect in mid-May - to be followed by an increase (15 to 20 percent) to be discussed in September. Wait a minute! These aren't reasonable increases. Congress must stir itself to res ist.

The new hike stems from the Feb. 3 postal increase decision. It seems the Board of Governors advised a first-class stamp to be 30 cents. This would cover costs. However, the White House-appointed Postal Rate Commission (PRC) set the stamp cost at 29 cents at the last minute. The Board of Governors accepted the rate under protest - going so far as to file a civil suit against the PRC in a US district court (one of 11 suits pending).

The penny decrease created a $97 million postal shortfall - just as the Board of Governors predicted. Now nonprofits are being asked to pick up the slack. As an official at our nonprofit mailing neighbor, the New England Journal of Medicine, told us: "We stand to get severely impacted twice this year. We budget for changes ... but this makes it very hard." Who did the PRC think would make up the shortfall?

Numerous political appointees at the PRC lean toward mail privatization - an idea better in theory than practice when it comes to low-cost mail delivery in a land as large as the US. It is quite ironic to find White House appointees making it more difficult for the "thousand points of light" to let their light shine - through needed fund-raising letters, or through the cultural leavening of thought that little magazines, newspapers, and journals provide. The civic infrastructure should not be allowed to decay.

Some justice may be done. Fortunately a strong lobby is developing in the House and Senate Budget Committees to underwrite the May increase. More work needs to be done about the increases to be discussed next fall.

Abuses of nonprofit mail have occurred - mainly by travel and insurance firms. New legislation in Congress will stop this. (Congress, by the way, may vote itself guaranteed low mail rates for the new campaign season.)

Surely the Postal Service needs to improve. And there is evidence that under the steadying influence of US Postmaster General Frank, progress is being made. Patience is in order. Past mistakes are being rectified. The new automation system in the post office is beginning to take hold. In five years the service should operate smoothly - and, it's to be hoped, with better value for ratepayers.

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