Fee Increases Target Campers to Collegians
SACRAMENTO -- California’s deepening budget crisis has raised the prospect that state officials may tap not only polluters and power producers to help balance the budget but college students and campers as well.
Motorists could be forced to fork over more for ignoring a stop sign. Nature enthusiasts could be expected to dig deeper into their pockets to visit a state park. Ditto for students who dream of becoming doctors, lawyers or dentists.
Gov. Gray Davis released a list last month of more than $140 million in fee and penalty increases aimed at polluters, power producers and traffic violators, among others.
But potential payees expanded from the politically unpopular to include feel-good favorites after the state’s legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill, warned lawmakers last week that California’s projected budget shortfall had grown by $5 billion to $17.5 billion.
At the same time, she produced a list of more than 100 budget-enhancing options for lawmakers to consider, including reinstating recently reduced park fees. Attendance is up 30%, park advocates estimate, since Davis began slashing the fees nearly two years ago.
Hill’s office said the state could save as much as $20 million by raising the fees, which dropped to as little as $2 for day use after running as high as $6.
She also recommended that lawmakers enact a new student fee policy. Fees at public college campuses have not risen for eight years. The state could bring in $12 million, Hill said, by increasing resident student fees at Hastings Law School in San Francisco and hiking nonresident and professional school fees at the University of California.
UC officials said that instituting a student fee policy is worthy of discussion, but held off on endorsing the increases outlined by Hill.
“These are areas worth consideration, but we will really need to look at the totality of the budget picture before deciding whether these are worth supporting,” said UC spokesman Brad Hayward.
Lawmakers could free up $162 million more, Hill said, by imposing fees on private landowners to pay for fire protection and on timber operators to cover the entire cost of processing timber harvest plans.
Chris Nance of the California Forestry Assn. predicted that some property owners will be hit with both fees if they are approved.
Fees Can’t Exceed Cost of Providing a Service
Forest landowners, he said, already incur hefty costs for producing timber harvest plans, which for a small piece of property can run as high as $30,000. And there’s no guarantee that their plans will be approved.
“To further increase the cost of submitting a timber harvest plan could have unintended consequences, which could include owners’ deciding to convert their land for other uses,” such as industrial or residential, Nance said.
Fees levied by the state are by law not allowed to exceed the cost of providing a service and must be used to pay for the specified service.
The ultimate decision on increasing fees rests with Davis and the Legislature, and will be made after the state collects personal income taxes in April. Armed with the fresh financial data, Davis will release a revised spending proposal in May--an event that kicks off legislative budget negotiations.
Already, though, Davis and Hill have offered ideas that would cost residents and businesses millions of dollars. The governor, for example, has proposed tacking a 20% surcharge onto criminal fines, which in California are largely levied against motorists who commit traffic violations.
A ticket for running a red light in Los Angeles would rise from $271 to $291. Ignoring a stop sign would cost $111 instead of $104 after the surcharge was added to the base fines. (The financial punishment for committing either offense includes a base fine and penalty and night court assessment fees.)
The Davis administration predicts that the surcharge would raise close to $46 million, with the money earmarked for the general fund.
In her annual critique of the governor’s spending plan, Hill described the surcharge idea and another proposal by Davis to increase civil filing fees by 10% as a “risky assumption.” She cited the ability of local officials to set fine amounts and the downward trend in civil court filings.
$1 Co-Payment Sought on Prescription Drugs
Hill also recommended that the Legislature reject a Davis proposal to begin charging Medi-Cal recipients a $1 co-payment on prescription drugs.
Assembly Republicans count the co-payment as a new fee and peg the amount of fee increases contained in the Davis budget proposal at nearly $500 million.
So far, Davis and lawmakers have solved about $3 billion of what Hill is now projecting to be a $17.5-billion budget problem, leaving about $14.5 billion to go.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson raised fees and taxes and cut spending when faced with a $14-billion deficit in 1991 at the start of his first term.
With elections looming in November, however, tax increases are considered particularly taboo this year and have made fees, cuts and borrowing a more palatable approach for politicians.
Susan Smartt, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises $5 million annually for parks, is optimistic that public perception will help keep park fee reductions intact.
“If they raise fees, it will save a little bit of money, but I don’t think that will happen because the fee reduction has been so well received by the public,” she said.
Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, suggested that a combination of common sense and shame should keep lawmakers from raising fees.
“To even consider raising revenues during a recessionary period runs counter to every economic theory I’m aware of,” he said. “They don’t have the guts to cut the spending they have bloated beyond belief.”