User fees are badges of dishonesty

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Jun 14 2011.   By Heather Mallick, Star Columnist

Last year the world’s airlines earned $21.5 billion in extra fees for things you once took for granted: a second suitcase, headset, blanket, wide seats, help finding another flight if yours is cancelled, food. I swear, Ryanair-style washrooms and standing seats are next.

Then came the fuel surcharge, air navigation fee, aviation insurance, security charges and fees for having the terminal redecorated.

The genius of Expedia.ca is that it adds most of the ancillaries to the cost of a return flight. (Who takes those amazingly cheap one-way flights you see in travel ads? People fleeing a broken heart and terrorists, it can’t be a big demographic.) With Expedia, at least you know where you stand.

The City of Toronto charges 3,000 different user fees and Mayor Rob Ford has promised more. I’m puzzled by the way the city’s website phrases it: “User fees can help the City keep the cost of property taxes down by making sure that services which only a few people choose to use are not paid for by everyone.”

Am I mistaken or is there a sneering undertone to that? If seniors swim at the local pool at peak times, they can do it on their own dime. Whereas I rather like the idea of people suddenly taking it into their heads to get some exercise that will lessen their dependence on the health-care system. I get this idea occasionally. I’m not saying user fees deter me. I just sit and wait for the idea to go away by itself.

But there’s a principle here. If you pay property taxes on a house that is wildly appreciating in value to leave you awash in cash should you decide to relocate to Kirkland Lake — I know of a splendid one-way airfare if you’re interested — shouldn’t it give you the freedom not to have to nickel and dime? Income tax is fair. User fees and the HST hit the rest of us proportionately harder.

Of course we howl about taxes spelled out for us on credit card receipts and tax forms. User fees are stealthy in that no one’s interested when you complain about them. Everyone who drives on Highway 407 pays tolls but it’s hardly worth a headline.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement from glamorous Parry Sound-Muskoka with its $50 million G8 pork makeover — so gorgeous is the place that it will soon charge user fees for out-of-town visitors — has said Ottawa is going to raise user fees. It has to. It’s cutting taxes.

But raising user fees and cutting taxes add up to the same thing. I would be left agog at Ottawa’s assumptions about our inability to add if the Conservatives hadn’t proven repeatedly that we have no math skills.

Last year we paid higher user fees for airport security. That’s policing, part of every government’s basic duty: to protect its citizens from violent death. So why is it an extra?

I can recall complaints about being fondled by security guards at Pearson — my back ribs are ticklish — but few about the money grab. It might soon cost us more to camp in national parks. But I don’t camp, so campers can go to hell.

That’s the genius of user fees. Canadians are unable to see the big picture. We are nitpickers extraordinaire. As are the Tories. They may be shy of raising taxes for the things they love but their planned job cuts are so clear they could be painting billboards in blood. Witness spending cuts for the National Research Council, Environment Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development but higher spending on jails, immigration oversight, refugee appeals and courts.

At least they are admirably true to their declared beliefs. So why not show the same clarity when it comes to money?

User fees are the future, death by a thousand cuts. And all because we can’t say that much-abused word, tax, in all its simplicity and honesty.

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