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Quell the Rising Tide of User Fees and Raids

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

It is getting more difficult to believe the tired song that lawmakers and administrators have been singing over the past decade, that they have cut taxes and reduced the size of government especially when one watches the growth of user fees and special-funded programs.
This year’s session is no different as proposals pop up either to establish new fees or to increase those already on the books. Perhaps the worst offender is the department of health which over the years has consistently sought ways to shift its programs from being general fund financed to being funded with a plethora of user fees, all in the name of making those who utilize or benefit from their “services” pay for those services.
Indeed, the arguments the department makes in forwarding a new proposal for fees seems to be logical, that the person being asked to pay the fee is the beneficiary or perpetrator of the issue at hand. For example, beginning back in 1990, owners of underground storage tanks were asked to pay $200 into a fund for initial maintenance and a biannual fee of $100. The very next year, the fee was raised to $250 for initial maintenance and the biannual fee became an annual fee of $250.
These fees were paid into the state’s capital loan fund so that leaking underground storage tanks could be replaced as required by federal mandate. Because of the tremendous costs of replacing these underground storage tanks, small business owners were hard pressed for the capital to make the remedial corrections. Now that the federal deadline to replace those leaking underground storage tanks has past (1998), there is little use for the money in the capital loan program that was established for those tanks.
Now the department of health wants to take the money in the capital loan fund that was designated for leaking underground storage tanks and siphon it off into its operating programs so that the department can “educate owners and the public” about underground storage tanks and enforce the program. This is nothing more than a raid on moneys that had been taken from underground storage tank owners in order to make capital loans in order to now fund an operating program of the department of health.
The shenanigans don’t stop there. On another front, the department of health is proposing a nickel per quart fee on “lubricating” oil for the purpose of establishing a used oil recycling program. Tsk! Tsk! It is all that oil from the do-it-yourself oil changing public that needs to be cleaned up. Little does the department point out that back in 1987 the department sought and got the authority to impose fees for used oil transportation, recycling, and disposal. Whatever happened to that program and why does the department need a new fee to establish yet another program to recycle oil?
Then there is that little problem of glass bottles. Back in 1994, the department of health asked for the ability to establish an “advance disposal fee” on every single glass item imported into the state from beverage containers to dishes and glassware at a rate of 1.5 cents per item. The law provided that the fee could be increased as necessary to cover the cost of the program. Well, this year the department is back in with a proposal to set the minimum fee per item at 2 cents, citing the increased costs of the program.
Of course, in the very proposal that would increase the rate to 2 cents per item, the department admits that the rate may not be enough as businesses increasingly make the switch from glass containers to plastic. Reading between the lines, it seems that there is little justification for the increase, rather the program’s overhead has grown so much as opposed to the decline in the number of glass containers that the program is not generating enough revenues to cover the overheard.
The result is the cost of glass containers and therefore the products that they hold will continue to rise. If the product is of a nature that cannot make use of plastic, that item will end up subsidizing what ends up to be an ill-conceived financing scheme.
So readers might argue that these are all worthy programs, especially if they help to keep our environment pristine and trash or pollutant free. And certainly there is no argument. The problem is how the programs are being financed – with user fees that consumers and taxpayers don’t see. Because the money is earmarked, the funds can’t be used for anything else and sooner or later people forget about the fee and program. But in the meantime government gets larger and larger.

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