Welcome to the Fee State

March 02, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

It all comes out in the wash, doesn't it? For how many years now has the state told us that its emissions testing program is all about clean air and has nothing to do with raising revenue?

You know, just like seat belt laws were passed because lawmakers genuinely care about our health and safety, not because the state needed a boost in its cash flow.

Well, it seems the air has gone out of the air pollution argument, thanks to a bill introduced by Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. New car owners currently have to have their vehicles' emissions equipment inspected after they have owned the car for two years. Myers' bill would make it three years before the first inspection.

The bill makes perfect sense, since almost no relatively new cars fail the test.

But transportation officials oppose the bill. Why? Because, according to press accounts, it "would cost the state $2.2 million in lost fees."


Um. Wasn't this supposed to be about the air?

"I don't have to tell you how much people don't like VEIP," said transportation official Marsha Kaiser, in perhaps the greatest understatement since Pickett's aides told him the charge wasn't going exactly as he'd planned.

"But it works," she added. And I'm sure it does - on older cars in heavily populated counties where motorists spend a lot of time idling in stuck traffic.

But on new cars? In rural counties? Pooh.

Now what's interesting is that at this very same hearing, Kaiser tried to convince lawmakers this program isn't about the fees. In fact, she said, the state has to pay $19 to a contractor to test each car, but receives only a $14 fee from the motorist. So the state actually loses money on the program.

OK, but if that's the case, the state actually should save money by performing fewer tests because it won't have to subsidize the remaining $5 per car.

Yet the state in the same breath says it will lose $2.2 million.

So which is it? How can the state lose money when, bottom line, it has to pay $5 a test? Scaling back the number of tests ought to be a big money saver for the state.

Maybe these transportation officials studied at the Mike Tyson School of Advanced Finance. That's the only way to explain their arithmetic.

Or else, could it be that they're not entirely leveling with us?

Of course, what else would you expect in a state that is considering a tax on flushing your toilet? The $2.50 sewer tax - oh wait, silly me. It's not a tax; taxes are bad. The Republican governor promised he wouldn't raise taxes. No, this is a fee. That's much different.

We won't raise taxes, we'll just slap fees on everything from driving a car to buckling your pants, and everything will be satisfactory.

The governor also has proposed increasing the fees on driver's licenses, and raising the biannual car registration fee from $81 to $128 on cars and from $108 to $180 on minivans and pickups.

While they're at it, lawmakers ought to change Maryland's nickname from the Free State to the Fee State.

It's getting to the point where we can't afford to pay lower taxes anymore because the fees are more than making up the difference.

A simple tax increase might cost us an extra $200 a year, but all the fees the governor is proposing will cost us twice that. Oh, and don't even think about closing corporate loopholes, like the one that allows Maryland companies to register their businesses in more tax-friendly Delaware. Making everyone pay their fair share isn't business-friendly.

No, it would be better to raise revenue by charging tolls on all our state roads. That's the answer. That and gambling. Charge 'em to use the roads that take them to the casinos. It's a win-win.

The best thing Maryland lawmakers could do would be to outlaw the word "fee" in any pending legislation and replace it with the word "tax." What's in a word? I don't know, but politicians definitely are snakebit about increasing one and lap dog enthusiastic about passing the other.

Even though to us, they both mean money.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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