Increase in 'fees' rankles Georgians

ATLANTA -- Opposition is growing against the increasing number of fees levied by the state that are supposed to pay for specific services but wind up in the general treasury.

Many critics say they're merely a tax increase dressed up to fool voters.
The practice of taking user fee money to shore up the rest of the state budget started more than a decade ago but has accelerated in recent years as the state grapples with declining income from taxes on sales and income.

In the last session, the General Assembly raised dozens of fees to help plug a budget hole, from drivers licenses to court filing. With next year's budget projected to have a nearly $2 billion shortfall, observers predict the fee swap-out will continue.

Officials with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia said Monday that they intend to take a public stance against future fees until the state stops its practice of redirecting the revenue collected from existing fees. Examples include fees on drunk-driving arrests for crime labs and on phone bills listed for 911 service even though none of the money winds up going to local emergency-dispatch services.

"The big issue here is when does a fee become a tax? Does it erode the public's trust in our state government to deliver the services ... when it's no more than a bait and switch?" asked Todd Edwards, associate legislative director for the association.

In many cases, local governments have to come up with the money to pay expenses that the fees were intended to cover, from health departments to legal defense for the poor.

In other cases, the services simply aren't provided by anyone. The state collected $17 million from a $1 tire fee intended to clean up old, illegal tire dumps, but less than $2 million went to actual cleanup. The rest went to shoring up the general budget while the Department of Natural Resources can't afford to remove 3 million tires dumped illegally in Upson County.

Environmental groups are angry, too, calling for a constitutional amendment that would limit fee revenue to the stated purpose.

 "It would allow the legislature to fund programs or get rid of them if they're not needed," said Neill Herring, lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "It wouldn't allow them to collect money and use it somewhere else. ... It would remove the bad odor of fees."

 

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