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Momentum builds for repeal of boat fee

Boat owners just might get out of paying $127-million in new taxes this year as a drive in Congress to repeal a user fee gains momentum. The fee was tacked onto last year's deficit reduction bill despite widespread objections in both chambers.

Opponents of the new fee, which will apply to boats longer than 16 feet, have called the law "a late-night, back-room deal" that unfairly assumes boat owners are rich enough to afford it.

"It's not a fee, it's a tax, clear and simple," said Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla. "It's a real big thing for us in Florida. It hits the little guys too, and I hope that the mere fact that it's unfair will be noticed."

But if the law is repealed, opponents must come up with another way to raise the $718-million the fee was expected to provide over the next five years.

Aides to Rep. Robert Davis, R-Mich., who is leading the repeal drive in the House, said an offset will be presented to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee today.

"It (the offset) will come from a variety of different areas," said press secretary Bill Blough. "At this point I can only say that Congressman Davis feels very confident we're going to get this repeal through. We've just about reached the magic number of supporters."

As of Monday, 191 House members and 13 senators agreed to support the repeal. If approved by the committee this week, the repeal is expected to reach the House floor by summer's end.

The fee was designed so boaters would share in the cost of programs offered by the U.S. Coast Guard, such as search and rescue, towing and emergency assistance.

It's not working out that way.

"We're not getting the money. It's just not coming to us," said Chief Petty Officer Tom Heflick, a Coast Guard spokesman. "Boat owners should not expect an increase in services offered by us. We're told to collect the money, so by law we collect the money. But it goes straight out of our hands and into the general treasury."

Heflick said collection of the fee will begin as early as July 1.

The annual fees are $25 for boats between 16 feet and 20 feet long, $35 for 20- to 27-footers, $50 for boats 27 to 40 feet, and $100 for anything longer.

An estimated 4.1-million boat owners will be charged. How many of Florida's 710,000 boaters would be affected was not known.

"We realize that 25 or 100 bucks isn't going to break anyone," Blough said. "But it's the fact that you don't hit somebody up and say "Here, you're going to pay this because you're rich.' It's like telling people to pay to use their pop-up campers or ride-along lawn mowers. What's going to be next?"

As vice president of BOAT/U.S., a 390,000-member ownership group that calls itself "AAA on water," Michael Sciulla has testified for repeal.

"It's crazy to think this could have ever slipped by," Sciulla said. "Every boater in Florida should be angry about this.

"We've been fighting this tax for 10 years, and it was a sneaky, late-night dirty deal that finally slipped by us."

Advocates prefer "user fee" and say finding another way to raise $718-million won't be easy.

Rep. Harry Johnston, D-Fla., who supports the fee, has expressed concern over what the proposed offset will be.

But Bilirakis said he's encouraged the repeal has come this far.

"We know that this tax was supposed to go to the Coast Guard for programs," Bilirakis said. "But we also know things don't work out that way. My feelings are we're lucky to get this far. I just hope we put it out for good."

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