Some state agencies want more of your money

Proposed fee increases would affect Marylanders from cradle to grave

March 03, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

If you hold a gathering of more than 50 boats in Maryland waters after June 1, you can expect to pay a "marine gathering permit fee" — the amount yet to be determined — under legislation proposed by the O'Malley administration.

Need a certified copy of a marriage certificate? The cost would double from $12 to $24 under an administration proposal. Own a commercial scale with a capacity of more than a ton? The fee for registering it would increase from $75 to $100 under a bill submitted by the state Department of Agriculture.

In addition to the well-publicized tax increases that Gov. Martin O'Malley is proposing this year, his Cabinet agencies want to raise a wide range of fees for services — from recording an adoption to obtaining an initial copy of a death certificate.

Some of the proposed fee increases would affect millions of Marylanders — notably a doubling in revenue collected from the water usage fee often dubbed the "flush tax" and a $2 increase in a motor vehicle registration surcharge that supports emergency medical services. Others would affect hunters, parents of newborns and users of prepaid cellular phones.

Raquel Guillory, O'Malley's press secretary, said this year's list of proposed fee increases is similar in scope to those of other years and other administrations. "At some times, a fee increase is needed to provide the services Marylanders expect from their government," Guillory said.

But many Marylanders might not like it.

"Paying anything for government goods and services has become conflated with taxes," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The real problem is, people don't want to pay anything. They want it free or as close to free as possible."

To raise fees, O'Malley needs the approval of the General Assembly, which typically agrees to some and declines to go along with others. Fees are a particularly hard sell this year because legislators are also grappling with far-reaching tax proposals from the governor, including higher income taxes for the top 20 percent of earners and an extension of the state's sales tax to gasoline.

It doesn't help that O'Malley, a Democrat, took Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to task for fee increases in the past two elections.

Among the groups that could be facing new or higher fees:

•Maryland hunters ages 16 to 65, who would see the cost of a basic license increase from $24.50 to $40. The cost of a stamp to hunt migratory birds would rise to $12 from $9. The money would go to wildlife conservation programs.

•Users of prepaid cellular service, who would have to pay a 60-cent fee each time they buy phone time. The fee would support emergency wireless 911 service. (Users of non-prepaid cell phones already pay a fee for that.)

•Parents of newborns or their insurers, who would pay $90 rather than $70 for a series of optional but highly recommended tests conducted at the state medical lab to detect problems.

•Purchasers of foreclosed homes, who would have to pay a $50 registration fee.

•Parents processing adoption registrations, for whom the fee would go from $12 to $24.

•Drivers appealing a license suspension or revocation, who would have to pay $150 instead of $125.

Some fees would affect only a few businesses. For instance, according to the state health department, a new licensing fee of $1,500 would apply only to the state's 12 to 15 surgical abortion centers. One fee is so narrow that it would likely be paid by only one company in the coming year — a bank that wants to change its form of governance. That $5,000 fee is intended to defray the state's cost of processing the application.

Not every fee-related bill is calling for an increase, however. A bill requested by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation would waive reinstatement fees for members of the military whose professional licenses lapse during an out-of-state deployment. And for 128 truck drivers licensed to haul controlled hazardous substances, a $20 annual fee would go away.

But most of the proposals are for increases or new fees. Some have been met with protests from those who would have to pay them. Perhaps most vocal have been boaters, who for three decades have had to pay a relatively modest $24 licensing fee every two years — significantly less than in most neighboring states charge when all taxes are considered.

This year, faced with the mounting costs of dredging Maryland waterways so they don't silt up and become unnavigable, the state Department of Natural Resources is seeking a series of increases on a sliding scale that would charge more for the biggest boats.

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