Motor Vehicle Department Misses Mark on Transparency

November 7, 2012

Investigative Reports

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License PlateThe S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles is unlike most other state agencies in that its annual budget relies almost exclusively on “other” funds – mainly vehicle license and registration fees – instead of general funds.

Its ratified budget for this fiscal year, which started July 1, is $85 million, $83 million of which is “other” funds, with the $2 million balance in federal funds, according to Office of State Budget documents.

But the DMV did not comply with a state budget proviso requiring state agencies that collect fees or fines to post on their websites by Sept. 1 a report of those amounts collected last fiscal year, a review by The Nerve found.

“It was a simple oversight,” DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks told The Nerve when contacted this week. “We didn’t post it. That doesn’t mean we can’t get it out there.”

State lawmakers authorized the Department of Motor Vehicles to spend slightly more than $83 million in “other” funds last fiscal year. For fiscal 2014, the department is requesting nearly the same amount in other-fund appropriations.

“Other” funds, which include such things as college tuition and fees, lottery proceeds, 1 cent of the 6-cent state sales tax, and various fees and fines charged by state agencies, make up slightly more than $8 billion, or 34 percent, of this fiscal year’s $23.6 billion state budget, OSB records show.

The Nerve reported in February that nearly 100 state agencies, divisions and separate funds started last fiscal year with a collective “other” fund surplus of about $1.5 billion, which at the time was about equal to the estimated net worth of University of South Carolina graduate Robert McNair, founder and CEO of the National Football League’s Houston Texans.

The state budget proviso for this fiscal year (89.85) says that “in order to promote accountability and transparency, each state agency must provide and release to the public via the agency’s website, a report of all aggregate amounts of fines and fees that were charged and collected by that state agency in the prior fiscal year.”

The report must include, according to the proviso, the following:

  • The code section, regulation or proviso authorizing the fee or fine;
  • The total amount of fees or fines received by the agency;
  • The purpose of the funds;
  • If applicable, the amount of fees and fines transferred to the general fund; and
  • The amount of funds transferred to another agency.

Each affected agency must post its fees-fines report for last fiscal year on its website, and also provide a copy to the chairmen of the budget-writing Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees by Sept. 1, according to the proviso.

What exactly must be reported, however, isn’t always clear. South Carolina State University, for example, reported that it collected nearly $575,000 in fees and fines last year, but that didn’t include tuition.

Some state agencies contacted by The Nerve said the state budget proviso didn’t apply to them. S.C. State Library Deputy Director Leesa Benggio, for example, said her agency no longer has to report fees charged for lost books.

“This isn’t the same as, say, a fee for a fishing license,” she said. “Our fees are essentially reimbursement for a cost already incurred. We do not charge late fees on books, so we have nothing to report in that regard.”

A sampling by The Nerve found the following state agencies that have online reports of fees or fines collected last fiscal year:

College of Charleston: $166.5 million, $134.9 million of which was “education and general” fees;

Coastal Carolina University: $119.89 million, including $115.48 million in tuition and required fees;

Medical University of South Carolina: $78.15 million, $76.84 million of which was required tuition and fees;

S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation: $35.86 million (includes fire inspection and fire academy bond taxes in addition to professional license fees); and

S.C. Department of Education: $11.4 million, including nearly $7.8 million in fees collected from school districts for “hazardous traffic route transportation” and state bus permits for “non-instructional education transportation.”

Tuesday night, University of South Carolina spokesman Wes Hickman provided The Nerve with documents showing that USC’s main Columbia campus collected more than $452 million in fees and fines last fiscal year, including nearly $365 million in required tuition and fees from undergraduate, graduate and medical students.

Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or derek@thenerve.org.