Yesterday, the U.S. Coast Guard was to begin enforcing the penalties for those boaters who have yet to purchase or display the decals that validate the payment of a controversial federal user fee.
Over the past two months, much has been made about the user fee that is expected to raise more than $700 million over the next five years, but apparently, few people have taken the tax seriously.
According to Coast Guard figures, by late last week, less than 10 percent of the nation's 4.1 million eligible boaters have bought their decal.
Part of the problem is that boaters also have heard a great deal about a move to repeal the tax, which the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly against in July. A non-binding resolution to that effect was passed, 412-6.
However, a bill that would repeal the tax has been bogged down in the House Ways and Means Committee after being passed by the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.
So, fellow boaters, the tax apparently will be with us for a while, the Coast Guard is going to enforce it -- and fines could range as high as $5,000.
The controversy surrounding the tax is simply that it is a fund-raising vehicle that provides no return in services specifically for boaters. For example, taxes on automobile or truck fuel contribute to highway construction or repair; tax on marine fuels contribute to waterway improvement plans.
The federal boat user fee contributes to the country's general fund.
So far, the fee has raised less than $15 million of a projected $127 million in its first year.
The Coast Guard, which has been short of funds for many years, has been caught between a rock and a hard place. They will be responsible for enforcing the tax, which will probably translate into higher expenditures on their part without an increase in funds.
District offices of the Coast Guard have been instructed to fine noncompliant boaters two to four times the value of the missing decals -- a range of from $50 to $400.
Coast Guard crews will not search marinas for boats without the decals, but if they are on patrol and see a boat without the proper sticker, they will pull it over and issue a citation.
Boats stopped for not having the decal probably will be subject to a basic inspection for standard Coast Guard equipment and safe operating procedures.
So, a simple stop for what might be a $50 ticket for no decal could become a more expensive proposition if the operator has had a few drinks or if the proper number of life preservers are not aboard and so on.
Judging by the absence of proper decals in Annapolis and Baltimore marinas, perhaps more than 80 percent of area boaters will be running a risk should they take their boats out in the future.
The user fee was passed by Congress last year and since has been the target of heavy lobbying by BOAT/US and other user groups who have contended that it is unfair.
Enforcement of the user fee has been delayed twice in the past two months and, until yesterday, proof of purchase was enough to get one by without a citation.
The Technical Committee of Atlantic States Marine Fisheries has voted against adopting a 32-inch minimum length for the spring rockfish season. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources had recommended cutting the minimum from the 36 inches in effect last spring.
The committee's action prevents Maryland from going to a new minimum. During last May's season, anglers caught only 326 rockfish that met the 36-inch minimum.
Cost of decals: Boats over 16 feet and less than 20 feet, $25; boats 20 feet but less than 27 feet, $35; boats 27 feet but less than 40 feet, $50; boats 40 feet and longer, $100.
Where to buy decals: Stickers may be charged to MasterCard by calling 1 (800) 848-2100. Dialing the same number will enable you to receive a mail-in request form, or forms may be picked up at regional U.S. Coast Guard stations.