Getting married costs more next week

AUSTIN, TX It's going up from $30 to $60 starting Monday. But couples can avoid most of that cost and the state's 72-hour marriage waiting period by completing a free eight-hour course that teaches how to communicate better and how to resolve arguments.

The marriage law is one of several passed by the Legislature last year taking effect this September. Among other new laws are ones that eliminate an outdated telecommunications infrastructure tax and clarify rules for car dealer ownership.

Perhaps most noticeable to average Texans is the law governing premarital classes and license fees. Couples already are inquiring about it, and groups that want to teach the classes are ready to go.

"It's really busy right now," said Patricia Polega, marriage education director for Lutheran Social Services in Austin, which offers marriage courses and is working with Texas officials to coordinate the state-accepted courses from some 50 organizations and faith-based groups for Central Texas.

Eleven couples are signed up for Lutheran Social Services' first state-accepted marriage class, a secular course on Sept. 13. The organization has offered marriage classes for several years, Polega said.

"We'll talk about how do you say something to someone without them feeling defensive," she said. "We talk about forgiveness and commitment. ... We try to make it fun."

Polega said couples are encouraged to see marriage as a long commitment that takes work.

"One of the things that scares me is society's view of marriage right now is like serial marriages," she said. "We need to think about the long-term view."

The marriage course law was the subject of much debate at the Capitol. Rep. Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican who pushed the law, said he wanted to try to reduce the number of divorces. Opponents worried an expensive marriage fee would in effect make the courses mandatory for couples who couldn't afford the license.

Lawmakers ultimately passed a compromise bill under which the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is working with 12 regional family and social services groups to coordinate optional course offerings in their areas.

The law provides leeway for a broad range of courses, including existing religious premarital classes, if they meet the legislative requirements, said state commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman.

Courses must be eight hours and must address communication, conflict resolution and "healthy marriage" skills.

Though the new $60 marriage license fee can be waived for couples taking part in the courses, counties can charge up to $12 in local license fees.

Six states in addition to Texas have laws that encourage premarital classes in exchange for marriage license fee reductions, according to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. Classes are typically from four to 12 hours.

Texas calls its program "Twogether in Texas" and will have a Web site to provide information beginning Monday. Couples taking the classes will receive a certificate good for a year that they can present to a county clerk when applying for a marriage license.

Another notable new law does away with the telecommunications infrastructure fund and its tax. The tax on telephone service providers that was passed on to consumers on their phone bills was known as a "phantom fee" because it was meant to fund a technology program that no longer existed. Originally, it was intended to pay for a grant program to bring technology to public schools, hospitals and libraries in rural areas.

Gov. Rick Perry determined in 2003 that the technology need had been met, but lawmakers continued to reauthorize the fee and collect the money for the state. Perry's spokeswoman, Allison Castle, said the governor was pleased with the repeal of the tax, a move she called "truth in budgeting."

"It outlived its purpose," she said, adding that repeal of the fee should save taxpayers an estimated $176 million in 2009. "We don't need to be collecting taxes that we don't need."

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