The operators of a 24-foot boat would see the fee increase to $75 this year and $125 two years later, while the owner of a vessel longer than 65 feet would pay $350 and then $700 starting in 2014. Besides dredging, the fees would help pay for maintenance of boat ramps and marine safety programs.
Though the administration says it plans to scale back some of the increases before a March 16 bill hearing, the proposal has given an opening to O'Malley's political foes, who have teed off on the plan.
"There may be a false perception that boat owners in our state can easily afford a fee hike," state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, said in a news release. "But I think the majority of them are not well-heeled and prioritize their spending to keep their love of boating alive."
Norris said Republican orthodoxy has held that fees are a better way to pay for government services than taxes because — at least in theory –– they are paid by the users of a specific service. As an example, he pointed to admission fees charged for entry to state parks.
"Not everyone's going to consume that, so why should everybody pay for it?" Norris asked.
In 2004, faced with a pressing need for transportation revenue, Ehrlich proposed a package that included a near-doubling of the motor vehicle registration fee. Republican lawmakers, loyal to a governor of their party and relieved that he hadn't proposed a gas tax increase, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the package.
Ehrlich also originated the $2.50-a-month fee that finances the Bay Restoration Fund. Many Democrats applauded that decision — but not before hanging the "flush tax" label on it and making sure that the fee applied to homes on septic systems as well as those on public water and sewer.
The fee increases would come back to haunt Ehrlich. In 2006 and 2010, O'Malley, moving to counter Ehrlich's portrayal of him as a "tax-and-spend" liberal, ran effective campaign ads hammering his Republican opponent over fees. O'Malley won both times.
Republicans have absorbed that message and now are turning it against the governor.
"A fee is a tax, a tax is a fee, and this governor doesn't seem to know a fee or a tax he doesn't like," said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican. He said he thought O'Malley had promised not to raise fees — something administration officials say he never did.
"The governor never makes sweeping statements like 'I'll never raise a fee,'" Guillory said. She said O'Malley criticized Ehrlich over the use of large fee increases as a substitute for a rise in taxes, not for routine departmental charges.
Fee-increase bills roll into the Assembly every year. Last year brought increases in fees for probation supervision, birth certificates and vanity tags, among other things.
In some cases, as with most of the fees proposed by the health department, the service must be provided by law. For instance, if the costs of newborn screening are not covered by the fees, taxpayers would have to pick up the tab, according to Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips.
In other cases, tax dollars are not an option, state officials say. The boating fee proposal is a case in point.
Bob Gaudette, director of boating services for the Department of Natural Resources, said the state has seen its revenues from a vessel excise tax decline by half in the economic downturn. At the same time, he said, the Army Corps of Engineers has essentially handed off the responsibility for dredging of shallow waterways used for recreational and commercial fishing to the states.
If the department doesn't get the fee revenue it's asking for and another source of funds is not identified, Gaudette said, dredging would be cut back and waterways would silt up — creating dangers to navigation and problems for businesses that depend on those channels.
"We don't like people running aground. And people don't like running aground," he said. "Some boaters see it as just another fee, and they're focusing on the fee rather than the need."
Selected fee increases proposed by state agencies
•Hunter's license, now $24.50 for state residents, would rise to $40.
•Maryland migratory game bird stamp would rise from $9 to $12.
•Initial copy of a death certificate, now $12, would cost $24.
•Users of prepaid cellular phones would pay new 60-cent fee to finance 911 network.
•Registering a motorized boat of 16 to 32 feet would rise to $75 from $24.
•Nonmotorized boats would need $12 decal.
•Owners of septic systems would pay $5 a month toward bay restoration, up from $2.50. Many users of public water and sewage systems also would pay a higher "flush tax," depending on usage.
•Surgical abortion centers would face new state fee of $1,500.
Sources: Governor's office; General Assembly