Oklahoma lawmakers raise variety of consumer fees


Monday, June 9th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ If you're going to court to right a wrong or to church to seek marital bliss, you will be paying more in Oklahoma under recently approved legislation.

A variety of fee increases were passed by the 2003 Oklahoma Legislature, which adjourned May 30 after wrapping up a trimmed-down, $5 billion budget.

Leaders had mixed feelings about their work product.

``I'm not pleased with all of the fees that were increased, but I feel good that we were able to head off a major tax increase,'' said Todd Hiett of Kellyville, Republican House leader.

Early in the session, proposals to raise sales taxes were pushed to no avail by education and state employee support groups worried about layoffs as lawmakers sought to erase a $678 million budget shortfall.

Counting college tuition and fees, increased costs to consumers could approach $50 million in future months.

Students at state universities and colleges could be paying $30 million more in tuition and fees due to legislation allowing regents to raise costs to the average of other colleges in the region.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren has announced that tuition will be going up as much as $850 at OU next year.

Other fee increases will raise more than $20 million for programs run by the state.

Oklahomans will be paying more for many forms of outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing, as well as legal and educational expenses.

Visitors to state parks may have to pay entry fees for the first time because of fee-raising authorization given to the Department of Tourism and Recreation.

Fees going up will increase the cost of getting married, divorced and filing Small Claims Court lawsuits or other court papers.

Consumers bore the brunt of the fee increases, as lawmakers backed away from plans to raise some business costs, including doubling from $10 to $20 the fee insurance companies pay for copies of drivers' license records.

Another fee that fell to the wayside would have increased from $50 to $100 the price of a sales tax permit, used by merchants buying items for resale.

The drivers' license proposal and the sales tax permit plan were part of a budget agreement announced by the governor's office and Democratic and Republican leaders.

However, Republicans later said they did not sign off on those items and they were sidetracked.

Another plan to raise $11 million by changing the way the cigarette tax is assessed did not happen.

Under that proposal, first mentioned by Democratic Gov. Brad Henry in his February budget plan, the sales tax on cigarettes would have been eliminated and the lost money would have been picked up by a tax on wholesalers.

Proponents said it would capture money from Indian tribes not paying the tax and consumers would not notice an increase in the price of tobacco products.

Hiett was surprised the change was not enacted because it had been agreed to by everyone in early negotiations on the budget.

Instead of raising the business fees, lawmakers wound up passing a $2 increase in the cost of car tag licenses. That plan will raise $6.8 million, money sponsors said is needed to avert 23-day unpaid furloughs of Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers.

The cost of a basic hunting or fishing permit will go from $11.50 to $19, producing $3.3 million for the Wildlife Conservation Department.

The biggest fee increase, excluding college costs, will be for those who use the court system.

Officials expect $9.9 million will be raised to defray the cost of operating the courts by increasing fees for various permits and charges for filing court papers, as well as traffic fines.

The cost of a marriage license will go from $25 to $50 for couples who do not present documentation that they have received premarital counseling.

That will raise $540,000, less than half of the $1.3 million expected from raising the cost of filing divorce papers from $82 to $140. Oklahoma has one of the highest divorce rates in the country.

The cost of filing a case in Small Claims court will go up $10 to $45.

Rep. Frank Davis, R-Guthrie, a former judge denounced the fee increases in a floor speech, saying it will be a burden to many Oklahomans who have been wronged and need help through the legal system.

``This is a tax on poor people,'' Davis said.

Traffic fines under the law will go up $20 for speeding and $15 for most other minor violations. The fine for driving under the influence of alcohol will go up $100 to $283.

The most substantial fee increase for business affects convenience stores and other retailers that sell 3.2 percent beer, often called low-point beer because it has an alcohol content less than liquor store beer.

The fee had not been raised since 1941 and some retailers paid just $30, or $10 a year over three years, for a license to sell beer.

The increase in the beer permit, over three years, will be $100.