The House Finance committee has signed off on a package of about $100 million in fee increases for the upcoming budget year.
The most controversial increases include requirements for tolls on all ferries in the state system, a potential charge of up to $75 for driver’s education, and a long list of increases in the court system. The full list is here.
Filing fees for foreclosures would double, from $150 now to $300 as of July 1st. Filing fees for superior court cases would jump by about half. A new $50 fine would be imposed for improper equipment violations. Daily fees for jail inmates would go from $5 to $10. Prisoner medical co-pays would jump from $10 to $20.
Republican budget-writers said the increases will help the court system come closer to paying for itself. “I don’t think it’s fair for law-abiding citizens to have to pay these costs,” said subcommittee chairman David Guice, R-Transylvania.
Democrats argued the court system benefits the whole state and should be covered by the general population. “In the case of the court system, it puts those fees on people who by and large are in some sort of distress, often financial distress, often poor, and it’s not the right way to go,” said Minority Leader Joe Hackney.
Additional money would come out of other programs. The budget would reduce funding for environmental and recycling programs, parks and land trusts, and funding for legal services for the indigent. The money would go into the General Fund instead for the next two years.
Democrats on the committee tried to amend the package to reduce or eliminate some fees. Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, proposed a “millionaires’ tax,” which would raise the income tax to 8.5% for couples making more than a million dollars or single filers earning more than $500,000. The increase would have offset 90% of the fee increases.
“This is a tax on 1/8 of one percent of top earners in this state,” Luebke said. “I believe these 5000 filers can afford it.”
Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, R-Lincoln, called Luebke’s proposal “a job-killer.”
“These are the people who bring jobs for people who are not in that bracket,” Rhyne said “These people can live wherever they want to live. And I’ll tell you one thing - they won’t want to live here.”
Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, tried but failed to add a one-dollar increase in the cigarette tax, a change that would have more than offset the fee increases.
Weiss also tried unsuccessfully to find other funding to pay for Drivers’ Education, noting that students under 18 need to have taken the class to get a learner’s permit. Her proposal would have capped the charge to students at $15 instead of $75.
Weiss and other Democrats said the $75 fee would be too high for low-income students and their families. But Rep. Ric Killian argued against changing it.
“How could a person afford to become a driver if they can’t afford $75 for Drivers Ed?” Killian asked. “The cost of insurance, a car, even a tank of gas - it costs so much more to become a driver.”
Killian also defended the ferry tolls, saying the Board of Transportation would be instructed to consider the needs of island residents who use the ferries everyday to get to school or work.
Democrats said the fee increases were nothing more than new taxes. “It’s a distinction without a difference,” Luebke said.
The measure passed the committee 17-14, with one Republican, Rep Mike Stone,R-Lee, voting against it. It goes to Appropriations for an all-day meeting Wednesday.