By Rolando Garcia
ANNAPOLIS – State agency officials’ justifications for raising a host of user fees failed to convince Democratic lawmakers, who warned they will reject the proposals if Gov. Robert Ehrlich is using them as a stealth tax to balance the budget.
Agency officials defended their fee proposals to a skeptical House Ways and Means Committee Friday, insisting that the increased fees were necessary to cover the cost of services, and that the revenue would not go to the state’s general fund.
“We want to make sure these aren’t hidden taxes,” said Delegate Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s, vice chairwoman of Ways and Means. “We had a lot of questions, and we didn’t get answers.”
If approved by the committee, Healey said the fee bills may include provisions limiting the use of the revenue to specific programs.
In his proposed 2005 fiscal year budget, Ehrlich closes an $800 million shortfall mostly through one-time revenue sources, and has vowed to veto any tax hikes. But Democrats argue the administration’s array of fee increases are just taxes by another name.
Lawmakers grilled David Hugel, head of the Motor Vehicle Administration, about his department’s $20 million fee package. Among the proposals is a new $20 fee for missing a driving test appointment and a $150 fee increase for those seeking a motorcycle license.
However, the bulk of the department’s fee windfall comes from stepped up enforcement of a $30 fee levied on drivers with outstanding traffic tickets.
Although the department already collects slightly more in fees than it needs for operating expenses, the increases are necessary to improve services and alleviate long lines at MVA offices, Hugel said.
But Hugel found little sympathy among Democratic lawmakers.
“Is your real purpose here in advocating for a fee increase to help the governor balance the budget?” said Delegate Michael Gordon, D-Montgomery.
The fee hikes really cover Ehrlich’s budget cuts to state agencies, Gordon said, and asked agency officials to provide the committee with their original budget requests.
The department failed to specify how services would be improved for those paying the fees, said Delegate Salima Marriott, D-Baltimore.
“Anything beyond what it costs to provide a service is not a legitimate fee,” Marriott said.
Republicans were more receptive.
Delegate Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery, said the hearing deteriorated into a largely partisan exercise.
“The questions seemed more focused on discrediting the information (provided by agency officials) than actually scrutinizing these fees,” Cryor said.
Other fees examined by the panel included a fee increase for those applying for real estate and accounting licenses and the $2.50 monthly surcharge on monthly sewer bills earmarked for Chesapeake Bay preservation.