With battles raging on so many travel fronts these days, retail professionals in California apparently are taking a "what else in new?" approach to the word that they can expect a $103 bill in the mail soon in the form of an assessment from the Travel Consumer Restitution Corp.

Under the somewhat arcane terms of the state's revised Seller of Travel Law, the fund must rise to a level of $1.6 million this year after taking two major hits in 1998, when Mexico Travel Advisors and a Carlson Wagonlit franchise bit the dust.

Of the $103 assessment, which is over and above the regular $100 annual fee, only $68 will be earmarked for replenishing the fund, which means $35 of a travel agency's reluctant contribution will go to overhead. In all, the 5,700 registered sellers of travel in California will be out $587,100 as a result of the assessment, not an insignificant sum.

Still, travel agents, apparently, have come to terms with the law despite deep reservations about its equity. The flat fees that float the fund, after all, are regressive in that they are the same no matter what the size of the company covered under the umbrella of the legislation.

Moreover, tour operators are assessed at the same rate as retailers, even though a vendor's potential failure threatens a far more significant consumer hit on the fund than would be the case if a travel agency had the misfortune to go under.

We wonder, however, if retailers should not be demanding to know exactly how much was paid and to whom last year as a result of claims on the fund, which is administered by the TCRC, a quasi-public institution?

The fund's spokeswoman says such payout information is not available, despite promises in the past that the figures would be part of the public record. It seems only reasonable that agents know where their money is going.

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