State Politics

Raise just the divorce fee, panel says

House Minority Leader Paul Stam has been happily married for 35 years, but that wasn't what drove him Tuesday to persuade lawmakers to drop a proposed $10 fee increase in the cost of a marriage license.

Stam, an Apex Republican, saw it as a regressive tax increase.

"It affects everyone equally, regardless of their ability to pay," he said.

The proposal was part of a $21.3 billion state budget proposal House leaders released this week.

It also proposed increasing the cost of filing divorce papers by $10. Both increases were supposed to generate $900,000 for domestic violence programs.

House Democrats, who control the chamber, weren't about to let Stam's amendment go through unless he figured out a way to recover the lost revenue. So, Stam suggested doubling the proposed increase in the fee for divorce.

"At least there's some connection between divorce and conflict, although not necessarily violence," he said.

The proposal passed the House Finance Committee and remains part of the budget proposal the House is expected to take up today. If it does, marriage licenses would stay at $50, but divorce fees could jump from $55 to $75.

The change creates a $200,000 budget hole. Legislative staff say there are 20,000 more marriages than divorces each year in North Carolina.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, later joked about the change. "The Finance Committee decided they would make it more costly to get out than get in," he said.

Divorce drop unlikely

People who deal professionally with marriage and divorce doubt the fees will make a difference.

Amy McMillan, a marriage counselor at Cary Behavioral Healthcare, said government can do many things to discourage divorce, but raising the fee by $20 is not one of them.

"From a realistic standpoint, it costs everyone way more than 75 bucks to get divorced," she said.

Or, as George Reed, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches, put it, "If you've fallen out of love and want out of a marriage, you're not going to say, 'Golly, the price has gone up $20. I'm going to stay in this bad marriage.' "