Friday, July 17, 2009

Are mining, fuel tax, health reform all possible now?


Could this be the year when nettlesome, holdover political issues fall like ripe apples into a series of sweeping reforms?

President Obama has declared health care reform in sight, if not in his grasp. That would be an historic accomplishment, one defying resolution since the days of President Franklin Roosevelt more than 70 years ago, now made easier by the growing support of various health care industry groups that see inevitability on the horizon.

Now, rising from the ashes of unresolved problems are two other major national issues that inevitably are shoved aside by each Congress because of industry pressures that trump national needs.

First is the Mining Law of 1872, enacted during the days of President Ulysses Grant, and which for the past 30 years has been proposed for reform and tabled just as quickly.

Royalties are the main issue. Hard rock mining, which includes gold, uranium, copper and other minerals (but not coal and oil), pays no royalties to the government for operations on government land. For as little as $5 an acre of public land and paperwork, almost anyone can obtain rights.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposes a royalty of 2 to 5 percent of the value of mining production. Much of the royalty fund would be devoted to cleaning up more than 100 years of mining pollution at abandoned mines. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a shocking 28 percent of environmental pollutants come from hard rock mines—the largest of any source. That translates, according to the EPA, to 3,400 miles of polluted streams and 440,000 acres of land.

Next on the reform agenda is increasing the federal fuel tax as a way of encouraging fuel conservation and thus reducing pollution indirectly, while also providing more funds to overhaul the nation's roadways and end years of neglect.

In what some might consider an unprecedented move, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind an increase in the tax, which hasn't been changed since 1993. The chamber agrees with a 2005 study recommendation to increase the current 18.4-cent tax by 10 cents now, and then 5 cents per gallon each year for the next few years.

It may be too much to expect, but other vital reforms await action.

The Central Intelligence Agency, impertinently ignoring its required reporting to Congress, needs tougher oversight.

Wall Street, whose rogue tactics have contributed to the economic meltdown, must be reined in and made accountable.

The nation's needs are many, but Congress and Obama are off to a good start.




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