S.C. Agencies Keeping Fee Revenues Secret

September 25, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Top SecretFees and fines collected by state agencies make up a huge part of the state budget, but some agencies are withholding that information from the public despite a requirement that their annual reports be posted online.

A state budget proviso ( Proviso 117.81 for this fiscal year, which started July 1) renewed annually since it took effect in the 2009-10 fiscal year requires agencies to post online by Sept. 1 “all aggregate amounts of fines and fees that were charged and collected by that state agency in the prior fiscal year.” The purpose of the reporting requirement is to “promote accountability and transparency,” according to the proviso.

But a survey this month by The Nerve of 26 agencies’ websites found that only nine, or less than 35 percent, had their annual fees and fines reports posted. Four agencies – the departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV); Public Safety (DPS); Insurance; and Labor, Licensing and Regulation (LLR) – posted their most recent reports this week after being contacted by The Nerve.

“We had the previous year’s up there, but we had not yet updated the one for the last fiscal year,” DPS spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said in a written response Monday. “That was an oversight. … Thank you for bringing that to our attention.”

“Both reports are on our website now,” said DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks in an email responses this week, referring to her agency’s latest fees/fines and accountability reports. “It was an oversight on our part, and we appreciate the reminder.”

In a written response Tuesday, Insurance Department spokeswoman Ann Roberson gave this explanation for missing the required posting deadline: “During the transition to our new web site, we have found that several links had been dropped. We are continuing to work to ensure that all information that was on the old site is also available on the new site. This particular link (to the fees and fines report) was re-posted yesterday.”

LLR spokeswoman Lesia Kudelka in a written response Tuesday said the agency’s budget director prepared the department’s latest report in mid-July, and that it was the agency’s “intent to post it online at that time, as we do each year.”

“Due to an oversight, that did not happen,” Kudelka said. “We posted it as soon as you brought it to our attention.”

The Nerve this week sent emails to more than a dozen agencies asking why their most recent reports were not posted on their websites, and when that would be done. More than half of the agencies did not provide answers by publication of this story.

The non-responding agencies included the departments of Revenue, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Social Services, Employment and Workforce, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

Fees and fines are included in the “other” funds part of the state budget. This year’s total state budget, which includes general and federal funds, is $24.28 billion (including $1.5 billion in federal food-stamp assistance payments transferred to an “unbudgeted account”), $8.66 billion of which, or about 36 percent, is made up of “other” funds.

Other funds include such things as college tuition and fees, lottery proceeds, a portion of the state sales tax earmarked for K-12 education, state gasoline taxes, motor vehicle license fees and court filing fees.

Over the years, the authorization to levy various fees and fines often has been buried in state regulations or temporary provisos in the state budget, which led, in part, to lawmakers requiring – ironically through a proviso – that agencies post their annual fees and fines reports online. Unless a permanent state law is passed, the reporting proviso has to be renewed annually to stay in effect.

A separate budget proviso (117.7) this fiscal year bans state agencies from increasing any fee unless the fee is authorized by state law, though there are a number of exceptions, such as tuition and fees set by public colleges and universities.

Following are the total amount of fees and fines collected in the 2012-13 fiscal year, which ended June 30, by some of the state agencies in The Nerve’s review, according to the departments’ online reports:

  • Motor Vehicles: $270.8 million;
  • Insurance: $222.8 million;
  • Parks, Recreation and Tourism: $42.5 million;
  • Labor, Licensing and Regulation: $40.6 million;
  • Education: $11.1 million;
  • Public Safety: $2.8 million;
  • Corrections: $1.3 million;
  • Commerce: $416,275.

Some agencies are required to transfer certain fees to the state’s general fund or other agencies under state law.

South Carolina Policy Council research intern Margaret Rupp contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.