House panel challenges Ehrlich plans for higher fees

Critics fear new charges in budget are hidden taxes

February 21, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Troubled by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s fondness for fees -- including a $30 charge for each of the nearly 1 million times a year a Marylander fails to pay a parking or traffic ticket on time -- lawmakers grilled administration officials yesterday about whether a series of proposed higher charges for government services were tax increases in disguise.

House Ways and Means Committee members tried to determine if several state agencies intend to recoup the cost of specific services through new or higher fees, or are looking instead to generate extra cash to help balance the state budget.

Charging Marylanders the actual cost of the resources consumed when they flush a toilet, hunt ducks or apply for an accounting license is legitimate, lawmakers said. But inflating those charges to generate profits that can be transferred to other agencies is dishonest, they said.

"The General Assembly should not write blank checks to state agencies," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

State budget officials say the criticism is misplaced, and that the proposed fees serve their intended function.

"Some of them seem to suspect there is an administration-wide conspiracy going on, and that is not the case," said state budget Director Neil L. Bergsman.

Lawmakers reserved their toughest questions for the Motor Vehicle Administration, which has proposed the expansion of a $30 charge to motorists who fail to pay their city or county parking tickets or other violations on time.

Currently, 36,000 Marylanders a year pay the charge, because it is assessed only when a motorist's registration is up for renewal. But the MVA wants to change its computer systems to send out the bills more rapidly, reaching up to 924,000 motorists each year -- even if their registrations are not about to expire. The administration thinks it can collect the money from about 65 percent of them, generating $18 million a year to use on upgraded technology and other capital purchases.

MVA Administrator David H. Hugel told lawmakers that the charge is fair because the MVA is helping cities and counties collect the ticket money owed to them.

"It takes time and effort -- personnel time and programming time," Hugel said. "We're exerting time and effort to do that."

But lawmakers questioned why the fee expansion was needed, and how it would be implemented.

"If I'm two days over the limit to satisfy Annapolis [parking tickets], you are going to send me a $30 bill right away?" asked Del. K. Bennett Bozman, an Eastern Shore Democrat.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about the governor's proposed $2.50-a-month charge on homes and businesses connected to municipal sewage systems, and whether all those who pay it would receive the benefit of using upgraded treatment plants.

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