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They’re Not Called Taxes, but Fees to Rise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year after they took a beating in the polls for imposing the largest tax increase in California history, Gov. Pete Wilson and lawmakers quickly agreed on one thing about this budget: No new taxes.

But the spending plan being cobbled in the Legislature’s waning hours contains more than $530 million worth of dirty little secrets--increased fees and indirect levies that will continue to gnaw at the pocketbooks of Californians who want to take college courses, use the toilet, go sportfishing, file lawsuits or even obtain copies of old tax returns.

That is not counting the $1.3 billion that Sacramento plans to take from local governments and special districts, a move that city, county and water district officials say is certain to trigger a round of local tax and utility rate hikes to make up for the loss.

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A spokesman for Wilson said Sunday that the governor has kept faith with the people because the fees are aimed only at those who enjoy direct benefits from government services, and not Californians in general.

“The governor is not asking the people of California to pay an increased level of taxes against their will,” said spokesman Dan Schnur. “But we’re asking the beneficiaries of certain state services, who choose to use those services, to pay for those services.

“The biggest difference between a tax and a fee is that a fee, by and large, is an optional payment,” Schnur said. “A tax is required.”

The explanation does not wash with some lawmakers who accuse Wilson and legislative leaders of using a “semantic facade” to break their no-tax pledge. Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a take-no-prisoners conservative, said fees are “laundered tax increases” because, in many cases, those making the payments have no choice.

“It’s total hypocrisy on the part of people who don’t want to increase taxes but . . . they jam you in the back by increasing fees,” said Assemblyman Johan Klehs, a liberal from Castro Valley.

“What’s the difference? It all comes out of your pocket.”

The $530 million in proposed fees pale in comparison to the $7.6 billion in new taxes imposed last year by Wilson and lawmakers.

That record increase prompted a backlash from recession-weary citizens and a string of promises from Wilson and legislative leaders to keep their hands out of taxpayer pocketbooks during this election year. The only thing on the table for the 1992 budget, they vowed, would be deep spending cuts.

But folded within the spending plan, now emerging from the 61-day budget stalemate, is a roster of new charges, levies and deferred reimbursements that amount to more than a 1.3% increase in state revenues.

A few proposed fees are only nibbles. Taxpayers who want old income tax returns will be charged $4.25 a copy. Someone starting a small day-care operation at home will pay $25 for a state certificate that once was free.

The middle-class parents whose child has leukemia will be asked for an extra $20 enrollment fee before the state signs them up for a program to help defray hospital costs. Pleasure boat owners will pay an extra $35 a year to register their vessels.

Other fees will take bigger bites from groups that Wilson and the Legislature believe should be paying more. Among those to be hardest hit:

* College students, who have vociferously protested tuition hikes since they were announced by Wilson in January. In all, the budget will extract $192 million extra from those taking classes at community colleges, Cal State or UC campuses.

For community college students, per-unit fees would double to $12 for those with no degree and jump 733%--to $50--for those who want to take classes after earning degrees. Each Cal State student will pay $372 more a year, while UC students face a $550 increase.

* Small businesses. Beginning this year, the state was supposed to allow companies of 25 employees or fewer to keep an extra $107 million in tax credits to help ease the burden of health care costs. The program was delayed, and the companies will have to continue paying the tax.

* People who go to court. Filing papers in Small Claims Court will cost $30, instead of $16. Lawsuits in Municipal Court will carry an extra $30 filing fee, while Superior Court suits will cost an extra $63 to file.

The Legislature is also making it more expensive to get out of lawsuits by tacking on $86 to the cost of filing motions for summary judgment. The extra court charges will net about $93 million, which will be forwarded to local courts.

* Residents in rural areas. The budget would impose a $50 surcharge on fire insurance policies for each home and business in areas served by California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection crews. Total take: $50 million a year.

* Tax scofflaws. Lawmakers want to recoup $26 million in costs to go after people who do not file their income taxes by charging an extra $88 for each delinquent collection and $51 for late filings.

* Pesticide manufacturers will pay $22 million more next year to have the state regulate and test their products.

Although those fees target specific groups, legislative budget analysts point to at least one fee likely to hit wide populations of people through higher utility rates.

The case in point is the state’s desire to raise $12 million this year by charging all waste-water dischargers more for routine inspections. Those dischargers include Los Angeles’ Hyperion plant, near Playa del Rey, which last year paid a $10,000 inspection fee. Under the new budget, it will pay $1.3 million.

The fee will no doubt be passed on to residents through increased sewage bills, analysts say.


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