A bill filed Thursday morning in Annapolis would replace the flat $24 boat registration fee paid every two years with fees ranging from $50 to $700, depending on the size of the boat. The increases would be phased in over four years, beginning in October, for Maryland's 191,000 registered boat owners.
"What's the benefit? Or is it just one more way to raise revenue for the state? No wonder people move out of Maryland," said Jesse Buckwalter, who keeps his 25-foot sport fishing boat in the driveway of his home in the Eastport section of Annapolis. "It seems exorbitant."
The money would go to replenish the state's Waterway Improvement Fund and pay for maritime safety efforts.
The measure is the latest proposed fee increase by the O'Malley administration as the state looks to make up for lost revenue and maintain services in a weak economy. Other controversial proposals include the governor's plan to increase the so-called "flush tax" on water use to pay for sewage treatment improvements and to extend the state's 6 percent sales tax to gasoline.
The state last attempted to increase boat registration fees in 2007, but the proposal died in committee.
"We're not doing this to create something new; we're doing this so that we can maintain what we have," said Bob Gaudette, director of the Department of Natural Resources boating services, citing the need to keep channels and boat ramps safe and reliable.
Under the plan, the registration for a boat under 16 feet would rise to $50 every two years by 2016. Registering a boat from 16 feet to 32 feet — the most popular size in Maryland — would cost $125. Vessels 32 feet to 45 feet would cost $250. Vessels 45 feet to 65 feet would cost $500. The registration fee for the approximately 52 yachts over 65 feet would be $700. All of the new fees would be paid every two years.
Graduated registration fees based on boat size are used in a number of states, including Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey.
In addition to the registration fees, state officials are asking to raise the annual cost of a boat dealer license from $25 to $100. That fee was last changed in 1965.
The proposed fee increase didn't sit well with some of the state's boat owners, who said it could lead to reductions in the number of boat owners and eat away at marine businesses that contribute to the state's economy, recreation and flavor.
The increases would lead to diminishing returns, said Paul Spadaro of Severna Park, president of the Magothy River Association and owner of three boats ranging from 19 feet to 36 feet. Marylanders would own fewer vessels, and marine businesses would take a hit: fewer boat sales, fewer slip rentals, less maintenance and repair work and a need for fewer boat furnishings, he said.
"I would get rid of two of my boats and just go down to one," Spadaro said. "The rate is too outrageous, the jump is way too far. You can't go from $12 to $240 or whatever."
A reduction in the increase would be needed, he said, to make the idea palatable to most boat owners, who've seen fuel and other boat costs rise.
The proposed fee would be hard on the state's commercial fishermen, many of whom have more than one boat, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. The group represents 6,000 working watermen and other members. Simns said he'd prefer to have the department cut costs.
"The economy is bad all around," he said. "It will be hard for anybody to have to pay. Every time you add a cost, it doesn't seem like much, but when you add it up it's a lot. It takes food off the table."
The state's Waterway Improvement Fund, used to dredge boating channels, maintain launch ramps and navigational aids, and pay for some of the activities of Natural Resources Police, has been depleted by the bad economy. The fund is replenished primarily through a 5 percent excise tax on vessel sales. But falling boat sales caused revenue to drop from $30 million in 2005 to $15 million last year, according to the state budget.
Meanwhile, the cost of capital projects mandated by state law is about $21 million a year and the Department of Natural Resources' boating-related operating expenses are $14 million, state records show.
Since 2006, the state also has taken on more of the cost of dredging boating channels previously maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps no longer has the funds to pay $6 million to dredge 60 of the state's shallow-water channels used by recreational vessels.
"There's virtually no money left to continue capital projects," Gaudette said.
The state has eliminated about 500 buoys and markers and cut staff, but it did little to slow the drain on the fund.
House Bill 1307, which will be heard by the Environmental Matters Committee, would raise $11.2 million, closing the budget gap by half.
If that means improvements for the Chesapeake Bay, Capt. "Walleye" Pete Dahlberg, a full-time fishing guide who also works part-time fishing striped bass commercially, said he is all for it. The increase to $125 for his boat represents about a quarter tank of gas.
"I don't have a problem with it, because what's a few more bucks," Dahlberg said. "I'm going to be on the water regardless, and would not be raising rates because of this."
Staff writers Lorraine Mirabella and Andrea Siegel contributed to this article
The plan would raise registration fees for boats in Maryland from the current $24 two-year rate. The proposed fees depend on a vessel's length:
•Boats under 16 feet (71,702 in state): $50
•Boats from 16 to 32 feet (104,438 in state): $125
•Boats 32 to 45 feet (15,126 in state): $250
•Boats 45 to 65 feet (1,914 in state): $500
•Boats over 65 feet (52 in state): $700
SOURCE: Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Number of vessels in state are estimates.