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Yoke of Fees Could Get Heavier for the Golden State

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

Last week we took a look at how California got into the financial mess that ended up costing Gray Davis his job as governor of that state. This week, let’s take a look at some of the ideas California lawmakers have come up with to solve the state’s fiscal problems.
Again, as we pointed out in last week’s column, lawmakers have tended not to raise taxes because it takes a two-thirds majority vote to approve tax increases. As a result, they have resorted to a variety of fees which they can somehow relate to some sort of program. While readers will find the list amusing, hopefully local lawmakers won’t take these to heart.
Vaguely reminiscent of a proposal forwarded by our former governor, one California proposal would impose a 5 cent per drink fee on wholesalers who distribute alcohol for consumption in the state. The proceeds of the fee would be placed in a special fund to fund local emergency medical service providers who provide services for alcohol related emergencies.
Another proposal would impose a fee of 30 cents per barrel to crude oil produced in California to fund the Children’s Health and Petroleum Pollution Act of 2003. This is an act that is supposed to establish public health programs and education projects on petroleum pollution.
Other proposals include a fee on tobacco manufacturers to provide funds to assist individuals in accessing and utilizing smoking cessation services. Another would impose a fee on beer and distilled spirits manufacturers and importers to fund alcohol recovery and prevention programs.
Probably the most amusing proposal would impose a fee on every retailer who sells or provides a disposable bag or disposable cup. The money generated with this fee would go into the litter and marine debris reduction and recycling fund which is supposed to be used to mitigate or prevent litter and marine debris. Hawaii already has a bottle deposit bill, is this where local lawmakers will go next? Can you imagine having to pay this fee every time you go to a grocery store or to a fast food outlet?
Another proposal would levy a 10-cent fee on the sale of ammunition for deposit in the trauma center fund which reimburses emergency service providers for the cost of treating gunshot wounds and injuries. And not to be outdone, another proposal would impose a fee of 5 cents on the purchaser of fluorescent tubes. The funds generated from this fee would be deposited in the fluorescent lamp recycling account to be used to assist household hazardous waste facilities in collecting and recycling fluorescent lamps and to local governments to assist in the collection and processing of fluorescent lamps as universal waste.
Apparently faced with the prospect of having to get a two-thirds majority vote to pass any tax increase. California lawmakers have resorted to the nickel and dime mode of adding fees here and there. Notice how similar the situation in Hawaii has been over the past decade as the economy fell into the doldrums and the high flying revenues of the “bubble” era disappeared. Fees and user charges have sprouted everywhere to the point where one department is almost exclusively funded out of user fees and charges.
And while the last governor made it sound like a good thing – that is to pay for government with specific user fees and charges – the danger it creates is that no one knows the true size of government as all of these programs are spun off out of sight of the taxpayer . . . that is until it is too late as in the case of California.
While the number of programs and user fees do not seem to have proliferated like they have in California, there are still a number of questionable fees and user charges set at levels that are not consistent with the services provided that should be reviewed. Some are just downright insulting. For example, there is a surcharge if you want your registration papers processed faster than if you don’t pay the extra surcharge. Why should someone have to pay a premium to get papers processed faster than others who don’t pay the surcharge? Shouldn’t government attempt to do its job as efficiently as possible whether or not it is paid a premium?
Hopefully the new administration will take a good hard look at the plethora of user fees that have been adopted over the past decade and the special funds which were created to basically hide those funds from the taxpayer and lawmakers. Hiding the true cost of government with user fees funding special funds is being less than honest with taxpayers.

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