The government has lost almost $2 billion this year because it isn't collecting industry taxes that died due to haggling between Congress and the White House. The losses are mounting daily.
Beneficiaries range from petroleum and chemical companies, no longer paying millions into the Superfund for toxic waste cleanup, to airline passengers saving a few bucks each after a federal tax on air tickets expired.Two other environmental taxes have lapsed. One hit gasoline and other fuels to pay for pollution from leaking underground storage tanks, and the other targeted crude oil to finance cleanups of major oil spills.
The government stopped collecting Superfund taxes in January because lawmakers were unable to fashion a compromise on reauthorizing the toxic cleanup law acceptable to the Clinton administration.
The tax generated about $4 million a day, mainly from petroleum and chemical companies. That means almost $600 million in revenue has gone uncollected in the first five months of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
A $3 billion surplus already exists in the Superfund account, enough to cover about 18 months of cleanup. EPA officials warn the cushion is not large enough, and cleanup programs soon will be hindered.
"Fees collected from oil and chemical companies are essential to our ability to clean up toxic waste sites," EPA administrator Carol Browner said. "The loss of these revenues is unfair and will soon jeopardize communities waiting for cleanup action."
Republican leaders like Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, strongly oppose reinstating the tax until agreement is reached for overhauling the Superfund law.
Archer believes the program has not worked. His spokesman, James Wilcox, said Archer "will not institute any type of tax again until the issue is resolved."
Some lawmakers and tax experts say the failure to collect the taxes is making it harder to balance the budget, because both the airline and environmental cleanup funds are counted as revenue in calculating the deficit. In addition, Republicans in the House have pushed through legislation for temporary repeal of a 4.3-cent increase in the gasoline tax enacted in 1993.
If agreements can be reached to reauthorize the lapsed taxes, lawmakers could recover some revenue losses by passing retroactive laws.
The biggest cumulative loss so far is from the tax on airline tickets, which cost the Treasury $1.3 billion through the end of April, officials said. The tax lapsed after President Clinton vetoed the GOP's balanced budget plan. It is paid by consumers, so airlines probably have realized little direct benefit.
The government also stopped collecting in January a gas tax of one-tenth of a cent per gallon to help pay for the repair of leaking underground storage tanks. The tax into the so-called LUST fund expired automatically when it wasn't renewed, but the EPA argues the money still is needed to help pay for cleaning up leaks from buried gasoline, diesel and other fuel tanks.
Expiration of the tax meant a loss of about $43 million since the first of the year.
The Superfund tax, widely criticized as being in dire need of an overhaul, has been the most controversial. It was levied at the rate of 9.7 cents on each barrel of oil and on chemical feedstocks at 22 cents to $4.87 a ton. The fund pays for toxic waste cleanup when private parties cannot be found liable.