South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental is in charge of overseeing a wide range of nuclear material, including from physician offices and hospitals as well as road testing equipment and laundries cleaning contaminated linens and gowns.
The agency said higher annual fees were needed for businesses, hospitals and researchers to adequately run the program or the state would run the risk of having it taken over by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Were that to happen, the state's fees, now half of what the NRC charges, would rise to the full NRC rate. DHEC said licensees support the higher fees.
But a House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs subcommittee last week rejected the increase. On Tuesday, the full committee sent the measure back to the subcommittee to take more testimony.
"The public and I don't like fees to begin with so they are definitely going to have to sway me and present evidence that its definitely a necessary must for our state before I'm going to pass one," said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, an Irmo Republican and the panel's chairman.
Some of the fees would have quadrupled, Ballentine noted.
Meanwhile, the fees generated so little money that agency should be able to cover the higher costs through its own budget, Ballentine said.
That's not how it works, DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said, "The thought that we have money to shift around and cover these costs simply isn't accurate. That's not how it works in this case and we don't have the money to shift around anyway."
Myrick said the fees have been in place for 40 years with a single increase since 2003. He notes businesses paying the fees want the increases. "They know these fee increases are cheaper than us not continuing the respective programs," Myrick said.
Meanwhile, the agency noted, if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took over the program, businesses would be licensed at the federal level and have less chance to work with local regulators or influence their decisions.
State Rep. Kenneth Hodges was the only member of Ballentine's panel to vote for the increase. "There are some members who are just adamantly against fee increases," said Democrat from Green Pond. That includes some legislators who have signed no new tax pledges or who are feeling pressure from tax protest groups.
Hodges said it doesn't make sense to risk a federal takeover of the nuclear material oversight program that would usher in even higher fees.
If DHEC can't come up with the cash and a federal takeover looms, Ballentine said, "then come back and we'll help them out."