The Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to propose a new framework for marketing and selling mutual funds, including replacing 12b-1 fees.

The agency said it wants to improve the regulation of mutual fund distribution fees and improve disclosure for investors. 12b-1 fees are charged by some mutual funds and are paid to financial professionals to cover the marketing, distribution or service costs for selling their product.

The fees have mushroomed since they were first created in 1980, and the SEC said they totaled $9.5 billion last year.

"Despite paying billions of dollars, many investors do not understand what 12b-1 fees are, and it's likely that some don't even know that these fees are being deducted from their funds or who they are ultimately compensating," said SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro. "Our proposals would replace rule 12b-1 with new rules designed to enhance clarity, fairness and competition when investors buy mutual funds."

Specifically, the SEC proposes new rules to limit fund sales charges, improve transparency of fees for investors, encourage retail price competition, and revise fund director oversight duties.

Regarding fund sales charges, the SEC proposal would restrict ongoing sales charges and would allow funds to keep paying 0.25% per year from their assets for distribution as marketing and service fees to cover expenses such as advertising, sales compensation and services.

New rules would also require funds to more clearly disclose distribution fees, particularly regarding ongoing sales charges and marketing and sales fees in the prospectus.

In addition, the SEC proposes letting funds sell their shares through broker-dealers who can set their own sales compensation in the open market. Under the current system, brokers must sell fund shares under the terms established by the fund. In theory, the new system would encourage price competition, much like how commissions are charged when it comes to selling securities.

Finally, new rules would set automatic limits on fund fees and charges. The goal here is to enable fund directors to focus on other matters.

There will be a 90-day public comment period after the proposal is published in the Federal Register.