Vital records fee hike spurs fight

Posted Oct. 09, 2009, at 7:33 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Getting a copy of a birth certificate, adoption record or researching your family history will get a lot more expensive next week.

Some fees charged by the State Office of Data, Research and Vital Statistics will quadruple, and there will be new fees imposed under a rule change.

Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry has introduced legislation to overturn the changes saying the increases are “excessive” particularly in a recession.

“This is starting to hit and people are hearing about these fee increases,” Raye said. “Some of these are 400 percent increases and I think the Legislature needs to revisit this.”

He said the fee increases, which take effect Oct. 13, will have a broad impact on Mainers as they seek documents they need to get a passport or driver’s license or other identity documents that require certified copies of a record.

The fees are for what traditionally have been called vital records, documents such as birth certificates and adoption records. The fees for record searches, often used by genealogists when researching family histories also will increase.

For example, changing information on a birth certificate increases from $25 to $60 and additional copies of the document increase from $6 each to $25 each. Research fees are increasing from $2 to $25 under the rule changes.

There are also new fees. For example, a new fee of $50 is created for the issuance of a certified marital status letter.

“I think the Legislature needs to take a close look at it and come up with something more reasonable than these astronomical fee increases, particularly in these economic times,” Raye said.

Dr. Dora Mills, director the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has oversight of the vital records office for the Department of Health and Human Services. She agrees that the fee increases are steep, but said they are needed.

“The office was running in the red,” she said. “We had to borrow money from other parts of the agency to keep it running, and we couldn’t keep doing that.”

She said the five-person office handles nearly 4 million records and receives some 40,000 requests for information every year. Only one of the five positions is paid for by the state’s General Fund with the rest dependent of fee revenue.

“We have lost staff and there has been an increase in requests,” Mills said. “We didn’t want to raise fees, but we had to raise them.”

In 1990, there were 12 positions in the vital records bureau. Budget cuts over the years have reduced that to the current five positions. She said Maine has the fewest number of workers and least General Fund support of any New England state. For example, New Hampshire has a full-time staff of 15 with all but one paid for with state general revenues.

Mills said the unit receives some federal money, such as a grant last year to upgrade its paper death certificate to an electronic system. Maine was the last state in the nation to make that move.

“What vital records does is really vital to a lot of people and to a lot of government agencies,” she said.

But, Mills said, the fees do not apply to government agencies seeking copies of records, even though those searches can be just as time-consuming as a request from the public. She said individuals also may obtain birth, death and marriage certificates from a municipality at a lower fee and that certificates of divorce are available from the court system or from Maine State Archives at a lower fee than Vital Records.

“We just can’t continue to do what we have been doing without a fee increase,” she said.

Mills acknowledged that the agency would be hard-pressed to meet all of its requirements even with the fee increases. She said requests from both the public and government agencies continue to increase.

“People are going to need a certified birth certificate to get a driver’s license on the REAL ID law,” she said.

The REAL ID law, which is in effect although legislation is pending to change its provisions, will require a certified birth certificate to get a driver’s license, or a passport. To get a passport also requires a certified birth certificate. There are over 1 million driver’s licenses of various types issued by the state.

“The fees are just too high,” Raye said, “This issue needs to be addressed by the Legislature and not done by rulemaking.”

Raye’s proposed legislation goes before the 10 elected leaders of the Legislature to be approved for consideration. It takes a majority vote, and Raye, the Senate GOP floor leader, is one of those who will decide which bills will be considered in the January session.

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