ANALYSIS: Missouri balks at taxes, but OKs higher fees

Sunday, June 6, 2010 | 4:19 p.m. CDT; updated 5:00 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 6, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers avoided increasing taxes this year despite an ailing state budget, but they still hope to get more money from animal shelters, some parents and owners of large animals.

The General Assembly, before adjourning last month, approved several bills that create new fees or raise the price tag for existing charges. Spread throughout state government, the proposed fee increases would allow new costs to be tacked on for bingo operators, families enrolled in a childhood development program and owners of large animals such as lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and bears.

All were approved by a Republican-led legislature that adamantly opposes higher taxes.

Missouri lawmakers generally have been more tolerant of higher fees. In recent years, the legislature has tacked on extra court costs to boost pay for sheriffs' deputies, charged more to register boats and added fees for millions of Missourians who get drinking water from public systems instead of private wells.

This year, the General Assembly approve an increase for the cost of registering pesticides from $15 to $150. They also approved charging bingo equipment manufacturers up to an extra $4,000 for their application fee and $500 more to renew their licenses.

The state Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, was authorized to set new fees for people to own wild boars and feral hogs and to charge up to $2,500 for permits to have large carnivores such as lions and tigers. Animal shelters would no longer be exempted from paying up to $500 annually for a state license.

Another measure would allow families to be charged a fee to participate in the Parents as Teachers early childhood development program to help sustain the program after budget cuts.

Gov. Jay Nixon has until mid-July to decide whether to sign or veto the various fee increases. The Democratic governor generally has opposed tax increases but said he does not see a problem with increasing fees if the program's costs are increasing.

"Charging Missouri citizens the cost of providing a service to them is wholly appropriate," Nixon said. "We do it every day, whether it's getting a birth certificate or a driver's license or whatever."

Nixon said his administration is studying how much the fees would cost to determine if the new prices are reasonable.

Tax hikes and fee increases both bring more funds into state government. But program charges essentially amount to a user fee that is paid by those who benefit from the government program and go toward continuing the service.

In other words, a fee for a permit to own large carnivores forces only those who own lions, tigers and bears to pay to ensure the animals are handled safely and treated properly. Missourians content on owning schnauzers don't pick up the tab for state oversight of pet grizzly bears.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, who has been vocal in his opposition to tax increases, said he is sensitive to broader fee increases but that targeted costs to pay for a service or to cover price of necessary state regulation make sense.

"It's all a case-by-case analysis," Crowell said.

During the legislative session, some critics suggested that some fee increases equated to tax increases.

Across the country, states struggling to deal with falling tax revenue and gain control over their budgets have turned to higher fees. At least a dozen have proposed fee changes for the next budget year, according to a report produced by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers. The report estimated that in all, states have recommended more than $600 million in fee increases.

Many of those state fee increases would affect numerous people living there. For example the report estimates that Georgia plans to raise $96 million through various user fees, including prestige license plates and civil court cases. Tennessee expects to pick up $22 million by increasing a driver's license fee. Arizona proposes to raise more than $17 million by increasing fees on tax licenses and abandoned vehicles.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer — whose proposal to add a new $500 fee for those convicted of drunken driving to pay for special treatment programs was shot down — said it can be fairer to make the people benefiting from state programs pay for it through fees.

"Those people that need the service are paying for the service, as opposed to the taxpayers of the state of Missouri carrying that burden," said Schaefer, R-Columbia.

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