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Scott Mooneyham: Phone tax has long life

RALEIGH ó Twenty years ago, North Carolina legislators agreed to allow local governments to add a fee to your phone bill to improve 911 emergency service.
The results can be see in every community. Road mapping, naming and addressing in rural areas was paid for by tapping those fees. The money also went to the communications equipment that allows an emergency dispatcher to immediately know the location of a call when anyone dials 911.
Legislators initially left it up to cities and counties to determine how high the fee should be. The rationale behind that decision was that, in rural areas, simple economics would make the cost of improving 911 service higher on a per-line basis.
So, rather than limiting the amount of the fee, the General Assembly put strict limits on how the money could be spent. The law restricted the money’s use to mapping, telephone and computer equipment, and other one-time costs focused solely on the 911 communications service. Not on the list: buildings, salaries or field radios for police.
Ever since, county governments have sought local legislation to try to get around the limits. Earlier this decade, a few raised their fees as high as $4 per line in anticipation of getting laws passed to remove the restrictions. A couple blatantly violated the law, renovating a building and buying mobile radios with the money.
So, in 2007, legislators rewrote the law. They established a system of state oversight using a model already employed to govern wireless phone fees. They combined the wireless and landline 911 fees and capped them at 70 cents per line. The new law also clarified and slightly expanded the permitted uses of the money.
Some weren’t satisfied. County commissioners still wanted to spend the money on salaries, radios, radio towers and street signs. And a few legislators kept on filing local bills designed to allow the money to be spent on such things. This year, legislators have filed six bills affecting nine counties and one town that would allow the money to go to new uses.
One bill has passed the Senate, but isn’t expected to be taken up by the House. A legislative study of the issue is the most likely result. But is a study really needed, two years after an overhaul of the law, a law that was the result of a study?
Eight years ago, then-state Rep. Ronnie Smith said: “To me, it is a hidden tax, no question about it.”
The tax was established for a one-time purpose, to modify the 911 system so that it could identify the location of 911 callers. Now that the task has been largely completed, elected officials of both parties trip over themselves to justify new ways to spend this easy money.
It’s funny though. No legislator has filed a bill to drop the tax.
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Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.

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