If President Bush has his way, some veterans soon will pay more for health care, meatpackers will have to fork over more for government inspections, and visitors could encounter recreation fees at more national parks and forests.
It is all part of a White House plan to increase revenue by billions of dollars next fiscal year through new and higher user fees. Such charges -- generated by services the government provides and the businesses it regulates -- would pull in $176.3 billion under Bush's 2004 budget, an increase of $5.9 billion from this year's estimated receipts.
"These [fees] have typically been a longstanding approach to support various specialized services," said Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. "It's not unlike if you have a dog, you buy a dog license. Dog owners pay for dog licenses."
Or, while the public pays for national defense, which benefits everyone, individual Americans who want a passport must pay an $85 fee to get one.
About $2.1 billion of the increase would come from new and higher user fees, while the rest would come from revenue growth in existing charges.
The Bush proposals include $230 million from a new $250 annual VA health care premium to be paid by higher-income veterans -- generally those earning more than $29,576 year -- who are not suffering from a military-related disability. Another $122 million would be generated by a new fee that the meat, poultry and egg industries would pay when they want government safety inspectors to work extra shifts.
About $195 million would come from a new charge on Medicare providers who submit duplicate or incomplete claims. And, a seven-year-old pilot program of recreation and entrance fees at some national forests and parks would become permanent, opening the door to new charges at some locations.
"In general, if the benefits accrue broadly to the public, then the program should be financed by taxes paid by the public," according to the White House budget. "In contrast, if the benefits accrue to a limited number of private individuals or organizations, then the program should be financed by charges paid by the private beneficiaries."
The reality, however, is seldom as neat as that, and new or increased user fees generally face a difficult time in Congress.
In many cases, the fee simply mingles with general revenue, with no guarantee that it will be spent on a particular activity; that can upset those in the industries being charged. For example, revenue from a charge on patent seekers won't necessarily wind up at the disposal of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.
"Why don't they get approved? Because in effect they are taxes on particular populations, particular groups, who usually are in a pretty good position to lobby strongly against them," said Stan Collender, a budget expert at Fleishman-Hillard who has worked for the House and Senate budget committees.
Some of the proposed fees in Bush's budget are drawing significant opposition.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee gave a cold reception last week to the annual veterans' health care premium at a hearing on Bush's VA budget for 2004. Committee Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said the proposal raises questions about the impact on "near-poor" veterans whose incomes are just high enough to require that they pay the new premium.
Veterans are attacking the fee, too, with American Legion National Commander Ronald F. Conley branding it "utterly ridiculous."
Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi, whose department is struggling to keep up with the costs of a 1996 law that opened the VA health system to almost all veterans, said the fee would help target care to the poorest and sickest of the VA's 4.8 million patients.
"It'll help us to defray the cost of care," said Principi, who said he recently abolished co-payments for veterans who earn less than $16,000 a year. "That money stays at the VA. It doesn't need to go into the Treasury, and we can use it to buy more drugs" for veterans.
The administration says it is only fair for meatpackers to pay for inspectors when their plants run beyond normal shift hours. But industry officials say consumers will end up paying.
"We hope history will repeat itself and that the user fee proposal will be rejected," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute.
Carol Tucker Foreman, an assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration, said the fee is a bad idea because inspectors would regard the meatpackers who are paying their salaries, not consumers, as their clients.
"This is a public health program," said Foreman, head of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute. "We don't charge businesses for having a cop on the beat. It's paid for by everybody as a general good. I think meat inspection is a public good -- the people are there to protect public health."
But she also has another concern. If Congress rejects the proposed fee, Bush's 2004 budget would contain $93 million less than the $768 million that is to be spent on food safety in 2003.
"There's a distinct possibility there will be, in the end, less money," Foreman said.
Other fees have foes.
Bush's budget would end a 1996 pilot program and permanently grant the National Park Service the right to set recreation fees at the country's 388 parks. The Park Service now charges entrance fees of $2 to $20 per car at 130 national parks, with the nearly $200 million in annual revenue used for upkeep of roads and buildings in the parks.
"People who use the parks put a financial burden on them that the rest of us who never get there do not," said David Barna, a Park Service spokesman.
"We get people who send in an e-mail saying, 'I've paid my taxes; I've paid for the parks. I don't want to pay when I go back in,' " he said.
Some analysts argue that the proposed fee on Medicare providers who don't file claims for payment properly is the kind of user charge that is reasonable, as those paperwork mistakes cost the government money and time.
"By changing their behavior, they [providers] can make it possible not to pay the user fee," said Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group in Washington.
But Jeff Smokler, a spokesman for the American Health Care Association, which represents 12,000 nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said the fee is unfair.
"It's a way to tax providers," he said. "This is the third time it's appeared in the budget, and we're consistently opposed to it."
Ashdown said it and other fees deserve an unbiased assessment.
"Some say that these user fees are just part of a game of budgetary smoke and mirrors," he said. "That could be the case, but they still need to be considered based on the merit and equity of each individual user fee proposal."