California's 1994 Seller of Travel Law is up for renewal. This time it is to be made permanent. A bill with several amendments -- including potential fee hikes -- has advanced through the state Senate. The pity is it's sailing through with almost no public debate.

Recently a board member of the Travel Consumers Restitution Corp. -- a private agency that oversees the $1.2 million fund and adjudicates claims by consumers -- resigned with these words: "If anyone knows how the [law] and the TCRC benefit travel agents, please let me know."

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The administration of the complicated law has been a stumbling block from Day One. After three years, according to the attorney general's office, 5,759 sellers are registered. No one knows how many sellers should be registered because the law applies to people nationwide who sell air or sea travel to California residents. A technicality that has not got a lot of notice is that those who sell over the Internet in the state must register.

Those who have registered have found the process complicated. Sellers who have missed the deadlines for registration ($100 a year) have paid out $370,105 in late fees over a three-year period. The fees represent 24.4% of the $1.5 million collected by the attorney general's office. Late fees are charged at the rate of $5 a day up to a maximum of $500 payable to the AG's office and to the restitution fund. The law does not allow fees to be waived, although a few apparently have been, in exceptional circumstances.

The big hits on the fund have resulted from the failure of a handful of tour firms, leading opponents to argue that agents are bearing the burden of indemnifying residents from shaky tour operators who pay no more than agents to register. Defenders claim that the law offers consumer protection, raising the professionalism of agents, and good guys often have to pay to protect the public from the bad guys of the world.

It may well be that the law has not had time to prove itself. But if that is the case, it should not now be set in concrete.

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