Proposed Fee Hikes Stir Anger

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Proposed Fee Hikes Stir Anger

BOSTON -- Convenience store retailers in Massachusetts oppose a new round of fees they claim are nothing more than tax hikes in disguise.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the House and the Senate all are proposing hundreds of millions of dollars in fee increases, while sticking to a no-new-taxes pledge. The fees and surcharges proposed this year strike at everything from boat registrations to homeowner insurance to gun purchases. It isn't small change, either. Lawmakers are relying on fee increases to help close a $3 billion shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1, according to a Reuters report.

Romney put $350 million in additional fees in his budget plan. The House followed with $394 million, and the Senate with $500 million. Many of the proposed fees are higher than the cost of providing related services, and the extra money would go into the state's general fund. And that has taxpayer advocates crying foul.

"This is only the beginning," said Barbara Anderson, of Citizens for Limited Taxation. "Once this new fee definition gets established, there nothing you couldn't have a fee on to pay for something relative to that subject, leaving you only with the question 'what are my taxes going for?'"

Besides blurring the line over taxes, critics say the new emphasis on fees sometimes hides the true cost to consumers. The Senate Ways and Means Committee was unable to provide a separate list of the new fees more than a week after its proposed budget was printed. The fee increases proposed by the Senate are buried in the back of the 268-page budget document, in small print, usually with no reference to current charges.

For example, the Senate budget creates a $2.5 million smoking prevention fund by imposing a new fee on stores that sell tobacco. But the budget doesn't spell out what each store would pay or whether the cost will be passed on to consumers. "It's so vague," said Diana O'Donoghue of the New England Convenience Store Association.

Lobbyists like O'Donoghue are getting whacked as well. The Senate wants to raise the annual lobbyist registration fee from $150 to $1,000.