Miss. lawmakers might consider raising some fees

Published 2:09 pm Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top lawmakers say they do not expect a general tax increase in Mississippi next year, but that doesn’t mean people’s pocketbooks might not take a hit.

Some agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and Commerce, have given lawmakers lists of fees that could be increased to generate more money for the cash-strapped state during the year that begins July 1. The House and Senate would have to approve the increases.

Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell said during state budget hearings last week that his agency provides some licensing and certification services at no extra charge to the people or businesses who benefit, while surrounding states charge for the same services.

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For example, Spell said there’s no charge in Mississippi for testing to become a landscape architect, with about 700 licenses already issued in the state. He said the annual fees are $175 in Alabama, $150 to $450 in Arkansas, $75 in Louisiana and $200 in Tennessee.

People taking a test for pest or weed control in Mississippi are charged no fees in Mississippi, with 1,733 licenses in the state. Spell said the annual fees are at least $120 a year in Alabama, $150 to $300 a year in Arkansas, $100 a year in Louisiana and $50 a year in Tennessee.

Mississippi lawmakers said they might consider increasing some fees in the Agriculture Department or in other parts of state government.

“Ever who uses state government, they pay for it instead of the taxpayers,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose.

Lawmakers knew before they even started their annual budget hearings last week that the state’s finances are looking grim. The current state budget is about $6 billion, with about $500 million coming from the federal stimulus package.

State tax collections have fallen short of expectations for each of the past 12 months, and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has already cut nearly $172 million, or 2.9 percent, from the current budget.

Tens of millions of stimulus dollars are scheduled to disappear during the upcoming fiscal year. Lawmakers said agencies, collectively, have submitted about $1.2 billion more in requests than experts believe the state will collect for 2010-2011.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee and Barbour will meet in early November to set a revenue estimate. That’s an educated guess of how much money will be available for the coming year.

Barbour sent lawmakers a letter Friday saying it will be difficult to give some agencies as much money as they’re receiving now. He said increases are unlikely.

“As Mississippi grapples with declining revenues and increased costs, we cannot practice business as usual in state government,” Barbour wrote. “The numbers simply won’t add up.”

Leading lawmakers will release their initial budget recommendations in December. All 122 House members and 52 senators are scheduled to vote on a spending plan by early April, three months before next fiscal year begins.