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House Democrats Decry Tea Partier’s Proposed Fees

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Members of the newly formed Maryland Tea Party Caucus are pushing a series of bills to give counties the power to raise fees, proposals House Democrats called “hypocritical” Wednesday.

The tea partiers’ measures would increase assessments from Anne Arundel County’s liquor board and give the Somerset County Sanitary Commission power to fine residents who pay their water and sewer bills late. A separate measure put in by the House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, would allow Calvert County officials to levy a fee to help with road construction. O’Donnell is not a member of the Tea Party Caucus.

The Anne Arundel County measure is narrowly limited to keep the county liquor board operating, said Tea Party members who voted in favor of the measure. The measure passed the House last week, 123-12, with the support of 92 Democrats and 31 Republicans.

“There’s a difference, what some of these counties are doing is they’re using fees to drive up the appetite for government spending,” said Delegate Nic Kipke, R-Anne Arundel. “This fee has not been raised in 30 years, we’re only raising it for the reason the fund it is in the risk of not being solvent which creates a risk for public safety.”

But Democrats said they are tired of helping Republicans support their counties while getting bashed when they try the same thing.

“I think it’s hypocritical,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery. “The Republicans will vote for their little thing for their little jurisdiction and then it will pass with overwhelming support from all the Democrats here and then they’ll criticize us for being tax-and-spend liberals.”

The debate hinges on an Annapolis tradition of “local courtesy” for counties on issues including alcohol sales and regulation and capital projects like road construction. State lawmakers from each county will typically meet and decide on each proposal — which are typically sought by county lawmakers — before bringing it to the full chamber, where it is then given de facto approval.

Whether a fee equates to a tax has also been the crux of high-level rhetorical battling in Maryland. Gov. Martin O’Malley flooded the airwaves late in the 2010 election with a series of ads attacking his opponent, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, for raising fees, featuring people asking what the difference is between the two as long as the money comes out of their pockets.

The handful of local fees being sought by Republican lawmakers pales in comparison to the tens of millions of dollars Democrats are seeking in the form of increased fees on car registrations and a new tax on alcohol sales.

All but one of the House’s Republican lawmakers — including the 24 members of the Tea Party Caucus — voted against the House budget which included increased fees on car titling, vanity plates and birth certificates along with taxes and fees sought by Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“We have this thing now where if it’s a Democratic fee bill everybody votes against it,” said House Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman “What if we did that to them? What if we said to them we’re not going to vote on their local fees? It would cripple their local governments in some instances.”

Democrats overwhelmingly control the House 98-43 and the Senate 35-12.

The measure sought by Calvert County lawmakers — which passed the House unanimously last week — would have county commissioners assess a fee on developers to cover the cost of reviewing road construction plans.

“The county requested the bill, so it comes from the county itself; you could do one of two things: You could have the companies who do this work pay the fee or you could have all the citizens pay the fees in their taxes,” O’Donnell said.

The bill to give Somerset County officials the power to fine late water and sewer payments differs from across the board taxes and fees because it can be avoided by paying bills on time, said Delegate Charles Otto, R-Somerset. It’s also easier for people to contest new fees at the local level than at the state or federal level, he said.

“People in their local area they have a direct impact, they can talk to their local legislative bodies,” said Otto, a member of the Tea Party Caucus.

More than half of the Tea Party Caucus — 14 members — voted in favor of the Anne Arundel County liquor board fee. Asked about the vote, a handful of them said the Tea Party will support fees as long as they are narrowly targeted.

People are tired of being told they will pay increased fees to help clean the Chesapeake Bay and repave state roads and then have that money diverted to cover budget gaps in the state’s general spending account, said Delegate Steven Schuh, R-Anne Arundel, a member of the Tea Party Caucus.

“What people object to is paying fees for a stated purpose and having those fees continually diverted to the general fund for other purposes,” he said. “Those kinds of transfer are highly objectionable to citizens and members of the General Assembly alike.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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