Eyman bristles at plan for raising fees

Published: March 9th, 2008

Olympia, WA - State lawmakers in Olympia are poised to adopt a batch of fee increases that probably will raise more than $100 million next year.

But Initiative 960 sponsor Tim Eyman says the approach lawmakers are taking to fee increases violates both the letter of the law and the spirit of the recently approved ballot measure.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler said Saturday that about 80 fees will be increased by the Legislature this session. The fees include higher tuition and increases to lab and parking fees at state colleges and universities. They also include an array of occupational license fees, such as boosting the annual license fee for people who sell explosives to $50, up from $25.

About 20 of those fee increases will be put into a single measure, House Bill 3381, while other fee increases will be authorized in the revised state operating, capital and transportation budgets, Kessler said. Still others will appear in separate bills.

“We’re definitely limiting the number,” said Kessler, a Democrat from Hoquiam. “We know that 960 is supposed to shed daylight on fees and taxes. People need to know what they are. And they will, for dam inspections, radiology licenses, elk hunting licenses, denturists … .”

Eyman said he’d prefer that each fee increase be done in a separate bill. That way, there would be a separate vote on each fee so that voters “would know who is raising my hunting license.

“Nothing under 960 says they can’t clump them together,” Eyman said. “That’s all fine. But it violates the spirit of I-960.”

What’s really bothersome, Eyman said, are parts of the bill that would give agencies the discretion to raise fees as bureaucrats see fit, rather than having the Legislature specifying and approving set amounts.

For instance, the Legislature previously instructed the state Department of Labor and Industries to set up a program to inspect manufactured homes and said the agency could set up a fee schedule that would cover its inspection costs. HB 3381 said the agency “is hereby authorized to do so.”

Eyman says that amounts to “legislative malpractice,” because the Legislature would be handing off its responsibility, contrary to the intent of I-960.

“The people want to return the authority to impose or increase fees from unelected officials at state agencies to the duly elected representative of the Legislature or to the people,” the initiative says.

“We don’t want autopilot fee increases,” Eyman said. “We don’t have the power to vote them out of office if they make a decision that we disagree with.”

Kessler said the Legislature gave authority to state agencies and universities to raise fees and tuition last year, before I-960 took effect. But some university officials believe they need the Legislature to reauthorize fee increases, so, just to be on the safe side, the Legislature is repeating some of the permission it gave last year, she said.

Another provision of I-960 is likely to play into the hands of minority Republicans, and majority Democrats are mindful of that, Kessler said. That provision is the one that requires the governor’s budget office to produce a report detailing the impact of fee increases on taxpayers over a 10-year period.

That means when the budget office early next week issues a report that says the fees will raise $100 million next year, it also will say the increase will be $1 billion over a decade.

“We know they are going to spin this some way,” Kessler said.

Wolfgang Opitz, deputy budget director for Gov. Chris Gregoire, said the newness of I-960 presents problems.

For one, the governor’s budget proposal was released only two weeks after I-960 took effect, but the budget had been prepared much earlier. That’s one reason Gregoire’s budget had no fee increases, he said.

It wasn’t clear – and still isn’t, in some instances – what constitutes a fee, “and how much new permission is needed,” he said.

I-601, which voters approved in 1993, also set limits on how much the Legislature could raise fees. But that was phased in and was implemented over an 18-month period, Opitz said.

I-960, however, took effect right away.

“There’s this legislative expectation that we’re supposed to know everything that we don’t,” Opitz said.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436




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