Administration eyes tax cuts for the wealthy as it seeks to hike Park Service fees

In Donald Trump’s world, the super-rich deserve low taxes but should pay exorbitant fees for outdoor recreation at private golf clubs and resorts. Disappearing tax bills and princely membership fees are badges of honor.

Now Mr. Trump wants to run the country like a country club. His administration – supported by Republicans in Congress – is proposing a massive tax cut for those in the top tax bracket and pushing an enormous increase in the fees paid by visitors to our national parks. It’s the kind of system Judge Smails, Ted Knight’s character from "Caddyshack," would love while he rolls his eyes at the public.

Taken together, these efforts will give huge amounts of taxpayer money to wealthy companies and individuals and turn outdoor recreation in national parks into another privilege reserved for the rich. That might be welcome news in the locker room at Trump National, but around the typical family dinner table, this will rightly feel unfair.

Consider the House Republican tax plan, an almost textbook example of trickle-down economics. It raises taxes on 38 million middle class households without touching the $38 billion in tax breaks already enjoyed by Big Oil – indeed, it gives the industry a new $4 billion handout for good measure. Senate Republicans are expected to pass a similar bill with an added provision giving the oil industry access to the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and repealing the individual mandate at the heart of the Affordable Care Act.

To state the obvious, hugely profitable oil companies like Exxon and Chevron – and their shareholders – are most likely to benefit from these moves. They don’t need free cash and special favors, especially at our expense. Handing public money to those who need it least might not sound like much of an economic agenda, but it’s what the Republican tax plan would accomplish.

Putting this tax plan in its proper context makes the real middle class squeeze clear. Not long ago, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed hiking entrance fees at 17 of our most visited national parks across the country – including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Shenandoah – to make up for Trump administration budget cuts and congressional Republicans’ refusal to fully fund the National Park Service (NPS). If this plan goes through, some entrance fees would more than double, forcing people to pay $70 to visit a national park their tax dollars already maintain. 

That’s almost enough for a round of golf at a Trump course, if you’ve already paid the six-figure membership fee. But our national parks don’t exist just for the president’s rich friends to enjoy. Our public lands and oceans belong to every single American. We should be making it easier to visit national parks, not harder.

This one-two punch is the modern Republican governing philosophy in a nutshell. If Congress won’t fully cover certain costs – at our wildly popular national parks, for instance – the answer isn’t a fairer tax code or, heaven forbid, stronger funding for the program in question. It’s higher fees for the public and a budget-busting tax cut for the rich, which will mean even less funding for public priorities in years to come. 

A closer look at the NPS fee increase makes the bait and switch even more obvious. There is no public justification for the uniform $70 figure, which may as well be $170 or $7,000 if all the administration cares about is raising money (as opposed to, say, genuinely improving public access). The closest the administration has come to an explanation is pointing to the $11.3 billion NPS maintenance backlog, an ironic talking point given that much of that backlog exists thanks to Republicans in Congress routinely underfunding the agency.

There were 330 million visits to national parks last year, supporting 7.6 million jobs and an $887 billion outdoor economy. There is no world in which an unsustainable fee hike – especially combined with an enormous tax cut that’s more favorable to oil companies than public lands – does anything to help this vital sector of the economy.

The Trump administration genuinely seems not to care about any of this. Despite the booming popularity of our public lands, President Trump traveled to Utah in December to try to shrink two important Utah national monuments – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante – through an executive order that all but his most fervent supporters understand would be illegal. 

If it were up to Republicans, oil and gas company CEOs would have more access to our public lands than the average American – and the average American would pay a lot more for the privilege. Republicans have said loud and clear that their interests lie with large corporations, not average Americans. And they’re putting our money where their mouths are.

Grijalva is ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

By:  Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.)
Source: The Hill