Romney Used Fee Hikes to Trim Budget

The Associated Press
Tuesday, August 28, 2007; 5:08 PM

BOSTON -- When Mitt Romney wanted to balance the Massachusetts budget, the blind, mentally retarded and gun owners were asked to help pay.

The Republican managed to slash spending to eliminate a deficit pegged at $3 billion, but he also proposed or presided over a far-ranging series of fee hikes _ a strategy that allowed him to maintain the no-new-taxes stance he now boasts about as he runs for president.

In all, then-Gov. Romney proposed creating 33 new fees and increasing 57 others _ enough, he said, to pull in an extra $59 million for the cash-strapped state.

Horseback riding instructors, prisoners, those seeking training to combat domestic violence and used car shoppers were asked to dig a little deeper.

Romney and Democratic lawmakers ended up approving hundreds of millions in higher fees and fines, making it more expensive to use an ice skating rink, register a boat, take the bar exam, get a duplicate driver's license, file a court case, install underground storage tanks, sell cigarettes or alcohol, comply with air quality rules and transport hazardous waste.

A survey of states by the National Conference of State Legislatures found Massachusetts led the nation during Romney's first year, raising fees and fines by $501 million. New York was second with $367 million. Nine other states raised fees and fines by more than $100 million.

Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said some of the fees that kicked in during Romney's first year had been approved before he became governor. He said the fees approved during Romney's first year totaled $260 million.

That doesn't include an additional $140 million in what Romney described as business tax "loophole closings" approved that year, the vast majority recommended by Romney.

"When Governor Romney took office, he faced a $3 billion deficit," Fehrnstrom said. "He balanced the budget primarily through spending cuts and reforms. Fee increases accounted for approximately 10 percent of the solution, and they were not broad-based by any means."

At the time, Romney defended his fee hikes, saying many hadn't been raised in years. As proof of his fiscal austerity, he pointed to his $2 billion in proposed cuts and support for a reduction in the state income tax rate.

"For me, generally, a fee is something which applies to a subset of the population. A tax is something which is far more broadly applied," Romney said in 2003.

But others said the fee hikes were simply an attempt by Romney to protect his political reputation as a tax foe for a possible future campaign for president.

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© 2007 The Associated Press