Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sweeney's Special Interest Bill Not Floating

Today's Post Star has an editorial on Sweeney's Boat Bill H.R. 5274:

PFD legislation doesn't float

Our view: There are better ways to encourage life jacket use than giving tax breaks to boat makers.

Tragedies are good for politicians, especially in an election year.

Any catastrophic event, from a hurricane to a tour boat sinking, is an opportunity for an elected official to step in and save the day by proposing new laws and regulations.

Sometimes, the legislation that comes out of a tragedy is a long-overdue and necessary response to correct a flawed situation.

Most times, though, what politicians come up with will have little if any tangible effect on preventing the next horrific event. But by the time voters figure it out, the politician has gotten his sound bite and the public has moved on to other things.

That appears to be the case with a new personal flotation device legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. John Sweeney in the wake of the Ethan Allen tour boat tragedy. The congressman, facing a tough re-election campaign, has proposed offering boat manufacturers a tax incentive for equipping their boats with new types of personal floatation devices. The implication is that because no one on the Ethan Allen was wearing a life vest when 20 people were killed last October, this legislation might have saved lives had it been in place.

But that connection is a stretch at best, and outright manipulation at worst.

First off, both state and federal laws already require that all recreational watercraft be equipped with readily accessible, Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices for each passenger. So giving tax breaks to manufacturers to equip boats with them is redundant. The Ethan Allen, by the way, met that requirement.

The problem with personal floatation devices isn't that existing laws are lax with regard to them being available on boats. It's that people generally don't like to wear them -- either because the life vests are uncomfortable or because the people don't perceive a threat to their safety.

How far would the congressman's proposed legislation go to change that situation?

Even if new boats were required to be equipped with the new, lighter life vests, the law wouldn't affect the thousands of existing operations that currently comply with the law by having standard-issue vests on board.

So rather than give boat manufacturers a tax break for doing something that boat operators are already required to do, wouldn't it be more effective to give the financial incentive to boat operators to replace their bulky, uncomfortable PFDs with new models that are lightweight and comfortable? Wouldn't it be more effective to give manufacturers of life vests a tax incentive to produce and market the newer models -- such as inflatable life jackets and collars or those that double as windbreakers? Wouldn't the switch-over to more "wearable" life vests be helped by a recommendation from the Coast Guard to include phasing in new models over a period of years?

And since people often don't recognize the dangers of not wearing life vests, how about investing federal dollars in an educational campaign to encourage more people to wear life vests -- particularly the elderly and physically challenged?

The focus on a tax break for boat manufacturers might have something to do with the congressman's previously mentioned re-election campaign. The tax break is endorsed by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents the boat manufacturers who would get the deduction. The association's political action committee, coincidentally, has donated $4,000 to Sweeney's re-election campaign this election cycle, on top of $1,500 during his 2004 campaign.

There are better ways to spend taxpayer money than giving one segment of business a tax break while ignoring potentially more effective solutions to a problem.

This new legislation looks good in a campaign flyer. But it could unnecessarily cost taxpayers a lot of money, while having a negligible impact on improving boating safety.

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