Threat of user fee returns with proposed U.S. budget

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Plans for a new user fee to help update U.S. Customs’ crash-prone computer system have once again found their way into a proposed U.S. federal budget.

The idea – thought by the Canadian Trucking Alliance to be dead – rears its head on page 847 of the latest Clinton administration document, which notes that such a fee would be used to raise US $210 million to replace the Automated Customs Service (ACS) with the Automated Customs Environment (ACE).

An identical proposal appeared to die last year, after it failed to appear in a subsequent appropriations bill and was not supported by the House Ways and Means committee.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance was claiming part of the victory for itself, after retaining lawyers Gow- ling, Strathy and Henderson to argue that such a fee would violate provisions of NAFTA.

Trade Minister Sergio Marchi also raised the issue during talks with his U.S. counterpart, Charlene Barshevsky.

The Automated Customs Service was created in the late 1980s and now handles an estimated $1 trillion in imported goods cleared through millions of entries each year. As of last year, U.S. Customs officials were admitting that ACS is running at more than 90 per cent capacity – well above its original design capacity.

Rumors that the idea of a user fee would resurface had been circulating for about two weeks, says Massimo Bergamini, vice-president of government and public affairs at the Canadian Trucking Alliance. “We’ve got another battle ahead of us,” he admits. “It’s a replay of last year … an unfortunate re-run.

“User fees are illegal under NAFTA and we think the administration knows that.”

It’s anyone’s guess why the proposal found a new life, he says. “The U.S. budget process is about as Byzantine as you can get. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen in this country.”

Since the money finds its way into general government coffers, and not directly into the Customs project, it’s a tax on trade, Bergamini says. n

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