March 11, 2008 in City

House tackles fee increases

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – Maybe it’s not a coincidence that House Bill 3381 mentions the word “explosives” 16 times.

State lawmakers Monday night found themselves faced with an unpalatable prospect in a big election year: voting on a bill authorizing dozens of fee increases totaling tens of millions of dollars.

They can thank Tim Eyman – and themselves.

State agencies charge hundreds of fees. Among their subjects: boiler permits, wastewater discharge, dam inspections, pesticide registration and driver tests.

For years, state lawmakers have allowed state agencies to decide how much to charge, within certain limits.

Then came Eyman’s Initiative 960. Approved by voters last year, it bans state agencies from boosting fees – at all – without approval from state lawmakers. And that approval requires public notices and a 10-year projection of costs.

Unlike the state Senate, lawmakers in the House of Representatives have avoided including fee increases in their budget proposal or other bills this year. Instead, they considered approving many of the fees in a single bill in the final days of the legislative session, which ends Thursday.

“We were thinking we’d pull them out so we wouldn’t have big old fights over the fees and focus instead on the policies,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish.

“Basically, it’s an election year, and if you have to do it independently, there’s potentially a hit piece on every one: ‘He voted for this, he voted for that,’ ” said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane.

Still, there was some sticker shock Friday, when House lawmakers were asked to approve about 400 fee increases with a 10-year price tag of more than $700 million. Lawmakers balked, only to face a hearing room full of agency officials and lobbyists telling them how critical the fees were.

They pared it down to 260 fees, totaling $83 million over two years.

Then they decided to start even smaller than that.

House lawmakers voted Monday night for just $6 million of the fee increases and are expected to pass more in the days ahead. The bill would raise the license fee for a pesticide dealer from $50 to $67, for example, and the license for an explosive manufacturer from $25 to $50.

But a second, much-larger round of fee increases will be included in the state budget, expected to be released today or Wednesday. All told, lawmakers expect to approve about $85 million in fee increases this year.

If the point of the initiative was to increase the visibility of such fees, Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam said, it’s working. Normally, she said, the increases are tucked away in numerous bills.

“This is transparent, this is open, this is really quite good for our taxpayers,” Kessler said. Unlike taxes, she pointed out, fees are charged only to the people directly affected.

“No taxpayer should have to pay for an elk hunting license if they don’t hunt elk,” she said.

But the House’s Republican minority protested Monday that the rushed process is undercutting any transparency. Many of those affected had no time to object, said Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way.

“Unlike those that live in this world of Olympia, they probably didn’t know their fees were going up,” he said.

Eyman was also unhappy. If lawmakers really wanted to comply with the spirit of the initiative, he said, they’d have a separate bill for each fee increase.

“Instead, they just clump them all together,” he said. “That does not give the voters any idea whether each of these individual fees was even thought about or discussed.”

It was a mistake, he said, to try to lump all the fees into one massive bill in the final days of the legislative session. “I think they played it too clever by half,” Eyman said.

Kessler said separate bills would be impractical.

“The initiative does not say we have to have a bill for a towel-fee increase at the University of Washington,” she said, citing one of the hundreds of proposed increases.

Many pay for critical health and safety programs, Dunshee said.

“Shellfish inspection? I kind of really want to know that that clam chowder isn’t going to give me botulism, or that my X-ray machine isn’t going to fry me,” he said. “Explosives? I’d like to know that the people who handle that stuff aren’t just some nutball.”

As for lumping all the fees into one bill, Dunshee said lawmakers will probably do it differently next time.

“We’re sort of figuring things out,” he said. “We’re reading Tim Eyman’s napkin and figuring out what it means.”

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