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Romney oversaw millions in fee hikes as Massachusetts governor

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 Gov. 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.

"It's a shell game," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "He can still say he didn't raise taxes, but fees are taxes by another name. It's a trick."

Two proposed fees that drew some of the most criticism would have imposed a new $10 charge on those seeking a certification of blindness from the state and another $15 fee for photo identification cards for the blind. They were approved by lawmakers, but later repealed.

Bob Hachey, president of Bay State Council of the Blind, said that while the fees were relatively modest, they could have made life harder on blind individuals on fixed incomes. He said Romney's penchant for fees even earned him a nickname.

"We renamed him 'Fee-Fee.' He was so unwilling to raise taxes that he was wanting to put all these fees in place instead," Hachey said.

Romney's fees could also grate on some of those he is courting as he seeking the GOP nomination, including gun owners.

Under Romney's plan for Massachusetts, the cost of registering firearms would have jumped from $25 to $75. He also called for increases in the cost of firearm identification cards, application fees for a license to carry firearms, and gun dealer fees.

Gun owners said they felt unfairly targeted by Romney's proposed increases. Democratic lawmakers applauded Romney's proposal -- ultimately raising the cost of gun licenses to $100.

"We certainly shouldn't be paying anything for our Second Amendment right, because it's a civil right," said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owner's Action League.

Wallace credited Romney for extending a gun permit from four to six years, but said the higher fees have contributed to a dramatic decline in the number of licensed gun owners in Massachusetts.

Also under Romney's plan, the state Department of Mental Retardation would have charged a fee of $100 to determine a client's eligibility and the Department of Public Health would have charged $50 for initial tuberculosis tests. Another $400 fee would have been assessed for those who tested positive. Those proposals were ultimately rejected.

Prisoners also would have paid more. Romney's plan would have hiked the cost of a phone call from behind bars to $2 from 86 cents. The price is still 86 cents.

The plan also included motor vehicle related fees, like doubling the cost of a learner's permit for new drivers from $15 to $30, which was approved.

There were some fees even Romney couldn't endorse. He vetoed a legislative proposal to increase the cost of a marriage license from $4 to $50.

The Club for Growth, which advocates limited government and lower taxes, praised Romney for trying to reduce the state income tax rate, but said "his record is marred by questionable statements and positions, and his fee hikes and 'loophole' closures are troubling."

Barbara Anderson of the anti-tax group Citizens for Limited Taxation gave Romney higher marks.

"To us a fee is what a fee is and a tax is what a tax is," she said. "His support for the income tax rollback never wavered."

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