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Fees would rise under Missouri legislation

Tax cuts were a top priority this year for a supermajority of Republican lawmakers who wanted to let Missouri families and businesses keep more of their hard-earned money. Yet those same lawmakers who passed a $700 million income tax cut also authorized numerous little-known fee increases that ultimately could cost Missourians millions of dollars.

The cost of getting a driver’s license could go up under one of the bills now pending before Gov. Jay Nixon. So, too, could the cost of registering a vehicle, and mailing in a traffic ticket.

Missourians could pay more to get copies of their own medical records or court transcripts. Businesses could get charged more for certain Agriculture Department services. And depending on where you live, it could cost more to file a lawsuit or pay a municipal fine.

How much more?

The fee increases at motor vehicle and driver’s licenses offices alone are projected to cost Missourians almost $22 million annually. Though the payments would come in little chunks — an extra $1.50 for an annual vehicle registration or $5 more for a typical driver’s license — the sum could be substantial for those who operate the license offices.

The higher fees are justified, because some of the contractors who run local license offices are having a difficult time turning a profit, said Rep. Lyndall Fraker, a Republican from Marshfield who added the fee increase to a wide-ranging transportation bill in the final two weeks of the legislative session. A decade has passed since Missouri last raised its vehicle and driver’s license fees.

“It’s more or less paying for those kinds of services that are important to us at a very reasonable, nominal amount,” Fraker said. “It’s not huge amounts of money here we’re talking about.”

Lawmakers have used similar logic for many of the other fee increases, which add pennies or dollars to the cost of various services.

Although fees and taxes both take money from people, many Republican lawmakers have drawn a philosophical distinction. A tax is broadly applied, and the people paying it “might not be getting an increase on their services,” Fraker said. Fees entail “paying a small amount for a service purchased,” and are paid only by the users of that service, he said.

House Speaker Tim Jones, who routinely denounces tax increases, expressed no reservations about the higher fees.

“Those are fees that are specific to the items that are delineated,” said Jones, R-Eureka. “They’re not any sort of a tax increase on all Missourians.”

Yet nearly all Missourians from high school age on up would pay the higher fees for driver’s and vehicle licenses.

Other fee increases also could have a widespread effect.

Several bills that passed this year would levy a $6 or $10 fee — depending on the offense— for traffic tickets that are paid without being contested in court. Legislative researchers estimated the fee could hit about 170,000 cases annually. Part of the revenues would help finance the Missouri Data Exchange, a computerized system that allows about 175 law enforcement agencies across the state to share information about criminal suspects.

Federal funding for the data system has been dwindling, said Mick Covington, executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association.

“It’s a very worthwhile project,” Covington said. “It’s good for the citizens and protects the officers, and hopefully it’s bad for the criminals.”

Some fee increases would hit only certain industries or particular parts of the state.

Agriculture Department fees for inspecting propane meters could rise more than sevenfold, from the current $10 to as much as $75 in 2016, under a bill pending before the governor. Other fees in the department’s Weights and Measures Division could double. By 2016, those fee increases could generate more than $100,000 for the agency.

Kansas City could generate almost $500,000 annually from a new $7 fee on municipal ordinance violations that would be dedicated to special mental health, drug and veterans treatment courts. The same bill that includes the Kansas City fee also authorizes a $5 fee increase on civil cases filed in Boone, Callaway, Clay, Greene and St. Louis counties and the city of St. Louis. That could generate almost $750,000, which local judges could use for law libraries, courthouse renovations or improved technology.

Other fee increases authorized by the Legislature would benefit particular businesses, such as doctors and hospitals that make copies of patients’ medical records, court reporters who prepare transcripts and banks that make short-term cash advances to their customers.

In recent years, some Republican senators sought to block fee increases by equating them to tax hikes.

Former Sen. Jason Crowell, of Cape Girardeau, was one of the most vigilant in doing so. Now a constituent instead of a lawmaker, Crowell has continued to chide his former colleagues through Twitter posts, pointing to the passage of six bills this year “that raise fees on Missourians without a vote” and denouncing the “tax and spend MO Senate” for the fee hike on driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

Nixon, a Democrat, has not publicly commented about the fee-increasing bills. But he already has vetoed the Republican-backed bill that would have gradually cut Missouri’s income taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Republicans could try to override that veto. But if they fail, and Nixon accepts the fee increases, the result of the 2013 session could be one that few Republicans envisioned: A government that takes more, not less, money from its citizens.

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