First in a weekly series
The state House of Representatives wants North Carolinians to pay government agencies an extra $160 million next year in new or higher ferry tolls, court costs, tuition charges and other fees for public services.
Some taxes, including a temporary 1-cent sales tax, would be cut in a $19.3 billion budget that cleared the House and moved to the Senate last week. But to help balance the books, millions of North Carolinians would pay more in what Republican legislative leaders like to call user fees.
If the Senate and Gov. Bev Perdue agree, high school students will pay up to $75 for driver education classes that are now free.
Criminal defendants will pay up to $70 more in court fees, and see the $5 fee for each night they spend in county jails doubled. Community college classes will cost more, and so will a variety of state license and inspection fees.
Commuters who travel to work each day on two busy river ferries, now toll-free, will have to pay tolls or buy passes that could cost up to $100 a month.
That last item worries the Rev. Robert Cayton, a Beaufort County commissioner who lives near a sprawling phosphate mine at Aurora that employs 1,200 people.
Many workers at the Potash Corp. mine on the Pamlico River's southern shore ride a 30-minute ferry home each day. Depending on where they live, the free ferry gets them there up to an hour sooner than a long drive via N.C. 33 and the U.S. 17 bridge at Washington.
"This is a bread-and-butter ferry that takes people to work," Cayton said. "A commuter pass would take money out of their pockets they now use to buy groceries and send children to college. Because we view it as an extension of the highway system, this would really come down to an increased tax on the people."
North Carolinians have seen some public fees creep higher when Democrats were in charge of the legislature. But after winning control of both chambers in November with a pledge to shrink government and trim taxes, Republicans want government agencies to collect much more money from residents in user fees.
The Republicans, in control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century, say they will charge students more for higher education, make cuts in health care for the poor and cut personnel in schools. They have questioned Democratic priorities and promised to use the budget to reshape North Carolina.
New fees in the House budget would land heavily on people in court. Drivers with speeding tickets and other defendants would pay $24 more for District Court, and $52 more for Superior Court.
Parties in civil suits would be charged $20 to file motions, and $150 to $200 to file counter-claims. The courts would collect an additional $57 million in new or increased fees for the state, and $35 million for the counties.
State law provides for a waiver of some court fees for indigents, but it's not clear whether the poorest North Carolinians would be exempt from the proposed new fees. Gene Nichol, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor, warns that higher fees would limit public access to the courts.
"The notion that a justice system becomes a sort of pay-as-you-go operation is hard to square with the central command of equal justice for all," said Nichol, who heads the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
Sen. Richard Stevens, aCary Republican who co-chairs the Senate's budget-writing committee, likes the new emphasis on user fees. He agreed a few years ago to support a $1 billion toll road now under construction in his Wake County district.
Stevens said he will weigh the public and private benefits of government services when his committee considers the new court costs and other fee hikes proposed by the House.
"There's a balance between the individual receiving services in the court system versus the public good in having a court system," said Stevens, the former Wake County manager. "You probably can never recoup all the cost of court from just the parties involved.
"But as a general rule, a fee that's paid for by the user of that service seems to be a reasonable thing - as long as that fee does not exceed the cost of that service."
No bridges here
Over the past century, ferry tolls have risen and fallen. This year, they're rising again.
Before there were bridges across most of the rivers and sounds that link coastal islands to each other and to the mainland - and before some of North Carolina's barrier islands even had roads - coastal dwellers and tourists depended on ferries.
The state was supporting 13 ferry routes in 1942 when Gov. Melville Broughton made good on a campaign pledge to eliminate "the last vestige of the toll system on any bridge, ferry or highway" maintained by the state. Broughton guaranteed that "all vehicles traveling the highways with taxed gasoline may pass free over the Alligator River and Croatan Sound ferries," The Dare County Times reported.
Those ferries and an Oregon Inlet ferry were replaced in the 1950s and 1960s with toll-free bridges. The Department of Transportation has seven ferry routes that carried 916,669 cars and 2.1 million riders last year.
"Certainly the folks at Ocracoke wouldn't mind if they had a bridge, too," said Sen. Stan White, a Nags Head Democrat. "But the state is a lot better off paying for ferries as a part of the state highway system than to consider building more bridges."
Some tolls returned in the 1960s when DOT took over the big vessels that carry cars on two long routes across Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke. The state also collects a toll on the Cape Fear River ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher.
Ferry expenses have risen sharply in recent years, requiring more subsidy from the Highway Fund - fueled with gasoline taxes. Toll collections cover only 7 percent of ferry costs now, and a 2009 study commissioned by DOT suggested higher tolls to help replace the aging ferry fleet.
Republican legislators seized on ferry tolls this year as a lucrative fee that could boost state revenues and free more Highway Fund money for road maintenance and bridge repair. The new budget cuts ferry funding by $10 million a year and orders DOT to increase toll collections by $5 million next year and $7.5 million the year after.
Will the fees stick?
But House leaders have found that it won't be so easy to collect those new tolls.
They wanted to require tolls on all seven ferry routes - including the busiest one from Ocracoke to Hatteras, which cost $9.4 million last year and carried 875,257 riders. Suggestions from DOT included a one-way toll of $10 on all the rides that are free now, and doubling the $15-per-car toll on the two longer trips across Pamlico Sound.
But Ocracokers protested that a Hatteras ferry toll would ruin their primary industry, tourism.
"If people don't show up, I don't have a job," said waitress Christina Hagins, 37.
And residents said they would be unfairly burdened with a toll for off-island trips to a store or a doctor's office.
"It would be like putting a toll gate at the end of my driveway," said Mary Haggerty, 47.
House GOP leaders relented. Amendments kept the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry free, and gave the same protection to a route that serves Knotts Island in Currituck Sound.
"We're working hard trying to figure out how to toll the ferries in a responsible way," said Rep. Phillip Frye, a Spruce Pine Republican who helped shape the transportation portion of the budget. "And we understand that it really creates a problem when there's no way to an island other than the ferry."
The Ocracoke and Knotts Island amendments were sponsored by two of the five House Democrats who helped Republicans pass the budget with a veto-proof majority.
These two routes carry 40 percent of the state's ferry traffic. If Senate Republicans agree to keep them toll-free, they may have to scale back their goals for how much more money DOT can collect on the other five ferries.
Some riders say they're ready to pay more.
"I would pay the toll because I know it costs money to operate the ferry," said Jeff Howell, 40, of White Lake, who was headed to Ocracoke for a fishing trip.
Roy Sjoblom, who owns an Ocracoke motel with his wife, Sharon, recalls paying $60 for an 85-minute trip on a ferry at Cape May, N.J. During a two-hour ferry ride from Ocracoke to Cedar Island, he said he was ready to see North Carolina charge higher fees, too.
"Fifteen dollars for this ferry is too cheap," Sjoblom said.
Next Sunday: It gets harder to pay for college.
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