Fort Mill Times

Proposed S.C. boating, fishing fee increases spark outrage, debate

For 62-year-old Tom Hively of Pelion, fishing is more than a hobby, it's "my peace and quiet."

So he doesn't take lightly news that lawmakers soon might increase fees to help plug budget holes, including those for registering his two boats and his fishing license.

"I think it's the wrong direction," he said as he stood outside a state office to register one of his boats.

"You are targeting just a specific group rather than the population. You're targeting a small portion of the people who have worked hard to get out there and do that. I think it ought to be more broad-based."

It's not an opinion shared equally among boaters and outdoorsmen, who would face increases ranging from 16 percent to 20 percent in fees if the Senate plan passes.

"If they spend money on enforcement, instead of just fees for fees, it would be great," said Ray Gunter of Greenville. "They (state officials) don't have enough officers to patrol what they got. It's not safe for anybody. When you don't have enough officers patrolling the lakes, then people break the law."

The new fees, he said, won't deter fishermen. "Fishermen fish," he said.

The split in opinions mirrors that in the Legislature, where some view increases in fees as appropriate while others scorn them as back-door tax hikes.

Among the proposed new fees are:

Watercraft registration fees of $35, up from $30, a 16 percent increase. Registrations last for three years.

Annual fishing licenses of $12, up from $10, a 20 percent increase. In fact, the fee increase is actually a surcharge on all fishing licenses, even temporary ones, said Mike Willis, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Annual hunting licenses of $14, up from $12, a 16 percent increase. The $2 surcharge would apply to all hunting licenses.

Vehicle registration fees of $36, up from $24, a 50 percent change.

Family court filing fees of $200, up from $150, an increase 33 percent. Some types of actions would be excluded, such as child enforcement.

Deposition fees of $50, a new fee. The fee would have to be renewed in one year or would die.

Hearing fees of $250 from $150, an increase of 66 percent, for administrative law hearings involving traffic offenses.

Motion fees for court of common pleas or family court would increase from $25 to $75 for two years, an increase of 200 percent.

The non-court fees would only be good for one year. But some lawmakers are skeptical they would be repealed after that.

'Christmas tree' of fees

"This has just become a Christmas tree for fee increases, which are essentially tax increases," said Sen. David Thomas, a Fountain Inn Republican who has argued for years that lawmakers should examine fees and the other funds category of the state's budget.

Thomas and some other senators argue that fees should only be increased to match an increase in the costs tied to services provided. They oppose fee increases as a means just to raise revenue and point to court fee increases as an example.

When the Senate first voted for the court fee increasees two weeks ago, some argued that they believed the judicial system's direct appropriation from the Legislature would be cut as a result. And that is exactly what has happened, some senators said.

"I prefer to see the fees connected to the service being provided," said Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens.

"Our understanding was that court fees was purely an effort to strengthen the financial decline that had occurred in the overall court system's budget and to address those needs, not other budgetary needs. I think that is going to cause quite a bit of discussion as we get in the budget debate."

Sen. Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican, felt so strongly against using increased court fees to meet a judicial budget shortfall that he threatened a filibuster on the bill's final vote. He said the court system's needs should be funded more by direct appropriations from the General Fund, not from fees.

The Senate eventually agreed to place a one-year limit on the deposition fee, which Massey opposed most.