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User fee increases are painful but necessary

Post by Cheryl Tucker on April 13, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
April 13, 2011 5:05 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Because a two-thirds vote of legislators is needed to raise taxes but only a simple majority to raise user fees, guess which is more likely to happen this session?

With a state budget deficit of more than $5 billion, a combination of cuts and user fee increases throughout state government is inevitable. Those protesting increases in fees should point to the deeper cuts in services they would prefer.

Legislators do need to take care in what they term a “fee,” otherwise it could face legal challenge. A bona fide fee should – in general, at least – pay for the service it’s attached to. For instance, proposed increases for forest practice permits should go toward the state Department of Natural Resources’ administration of the state’s timber lands.

Fee increases that could be controversial – and thus warrant close scrutiny by lawmakers – are largely in transportation. Legislative Democrats are proposing to raise fees on driver’s license renewals by 60 percent, to more than double the fees paid when a car changes ownership and to put a new $20 fee on a driver’s first Washington license plates.

These higher fees may be warranted. But to suspicious minds, the revenue generated by those fee increases would be distributed much like money raised by the old motor vehicle excise tax assessed on vehicle registration renewals. Voters rejected that tax in 1999.

Some of the revenue raised by the fee increases would go to the State Patrol, highways, local governments and freight rail. And a good chunk would go to the state’s ferry system – to help pay for a new boat and to avoid some reductions in sailings and higher fares.

To state residents who never ride ferries, that might sound particularly unfair. Why should they pay higher driver’s licensing fees to subsidize the ferry system?

The courts have ruled that the ferry system is an extension of the state highways, and it is under the state Department of Transportation. Still, lawmakers should be sure that ferry users themselves are paying higher costs, too, by passing a proposed 25-cent surcharge on ferry fares.

And the DOT needs to ensure that the ferry system is operating efficiently. Those increased or new fees won’t hurt as much if those paying them believe they’re funding something of value – even if they personally don’t ride the ferries. The revenue shouldn’t allow the DOT to avoid making tough decisions regarding ferry system sailings and staffing.

Some fees lawmakers propose increasing have stayed the same for many years. How many goods and services in the private sector haven’t increased in that time? Having those who use underfunded services pay more for them makes fiscal and practical sense.

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