The ultimate “user fee” in Oklahoma has risen exponentially over the years. Every increase has drawn complaints, but people keep paying.
We're referring to the tolls that drivers pay to use turnpikes. Those who don't drive on toll roads don't pay tolls, which not only fund the cost of construction but maintenance and Highway Patrol coverage.
Fees are becoming the financing method of choice in Oklahoma, just as turnpikes were the highway improvement method of choice for many years. The Oklahoman's Randy Ellis reports that the state's take from fees, licenses and permits in fiscal 2012 reached nearly $600 million, up 48 percent from the previous year.
Turnpike tolls are not included in these figures. But like tolls, the fees cover activities that are optional and sometimes help an agency reduce its appropriations from the general fund. Nevertheless, they're as unpopular as turnpike tolls.
The people themselves must share some blame for escalating fees because legislators are hindered in their ability to raise taxes. This resulted from passage of a constitutional amendment erecting barriers to tax increases. But gains from income tax cuts have without doubt been offset by losses from paying fees.
A big reason for the most recent growth in fees is the addition of a hospital provider fee in 2011. The money is used to leverage more federal Medicaid matching money. A similar fee at nursing homes has been in place for years.
A fee hike in the offing is a $12 increase in the cost of obtaining or renewing a driver's license. The extra money would cover the cost of adding examiners to reduce the chronic delays for people attempting to get a license.
Fees are onerous, but the people can't have things both ways. To keep taxes lower, fees have risen. With another income tax cut pending, look for more fee hikes around the next curve.