SADOW: John Bel Edwards’ Dumb Stafford Palmieri Bill

No doubt proclaimed 2015 gubernatorial candidate state Rep. John Bel Edwards understands the populist element in Louisiana’s political culture and wants to tap into it to facilitate his future political ambitions. It’s the only explanation short of idiocy for his desire to see his redundant, useless, if not counterproductive and unconstitutional, HB 703 passed into law.

The bill, which got voted out of the House yesterday, would require that any unclassified employee of the state within thirty days of assuming employment making at least $100,000 annually to show proof of having a Louisiana driver’s license and registration of any vehicles in his name be done so in Louisiana. This also applies if a salary increase brings that person above this level. Failure to provide such proof to the employing agency brings about termination.

Louisiana law already requires that state residents who own and/or operate motor vehicles comply with these license and titling requirements, so the bill instantly is redundant. However, it adds the proof standard – presently, the only means of enforcement comes from law enforcement officers incident to an arrest, investigation, or traffic stop, where it would have to be proven somebody without a Louisiana license and/or state titling had resided in the state longer than 30 days before any enforcement could occur (or potentially as many as 51 days) – and makes state agencies into enforcement bureaus, on top of their genuine functions. Further, it does so only selectively – only unclassified employees and those making six figures.

The issue appeared to have arisen last year when a governor’s office staffer named Stafford Palmieri drove around the Capitol for seemingly more than a month in a car with out-of-state plates, and had been employed in that office for more than a year. She claimed she still considered herself a resident of her home state of New York, the car’s titled location, even though she previously had worked for over a year in Washington, DC. Edwards argues that lack of changed titling showed insufficient commitment to the state.

Whether this kind of law would hold up in court in a constitutionality challenge is another matter. The state well could claim legitimately that as a condition of state employment it is in the interest of the state to have employees declare themselves residents. But whether it could claim that unclassified employees, of whom states are given less leeway jurisprudentially in restricting their behaviors, and only those who make a certain salary should be treated differently by the law may not have any substantial state purpose. In other words, such a law may be constitutional only if all unclassified employees must undergo this extra hurdle as a condition of employment, or it may not be at all because they are unclassified and the Constitution does not specify proof of residency as a requirement to hold a state job.

In all likelihood, the reason she avoided titling in state was the ridiculously confiscatory fees paid when registering a car from out of state. That requires paying sales tax on the fair market value of the vehicle (for fewer than three axles). While Louisiana has reciprocal state sales tax agreements with states that have sales taxes in most instances, which would waive the state portion of the cost, for a few it’s lower and there are those without sales taxes that would have to pay. Then in addition to this local sales taxes from the place of residence would apply. This could create a titling fee of four figures or more.

It’s just a stupid way to try to raise revenue, and leads to avoidance when motivated and possible (hint: try driving around university faculty parking lots, as few faculty members when hired come from in state, and count the number of out-of-state plates where there should be practically none). And here’s how the bill could make matters worse, beyond its increasing administrative costs by turning agencies into enforcers. Let’s say a university hires a top scholar on leave from his out-of-state institution on a fellowship for a year, who would make over $100,000 for that kind of gig. You know, maybe if he likes it and we like him, a deal could be worked to have him stay. Yes, they are unclassified employees, as are around 34,000 in the state (although probably only a thousand make $100,000 or better annually), including besides university faculty, administrators, and staff also medical, military, and local government staffers. And let’s say this guy has a nice, year-old car bought in another state now worth $30,000. That means you just slapped a $1,000+ cost on this guy to come here for a year because of this law. That’s really going to help in the recruiting process.

(And another thing: hard as it is to imagine, but especially if they come from back east, some people don’t own cars or even have driver’s licenses. So now a condition for employment in Louisiana for certain jobs is you have to have a driver’s license, even if you’ve never owned or operated a motor vehicle a lick in your life? For a job that does not require vehicle operation? Is that really constitutional?)

The real problem is the asinine titling costs. If the state were serious in wanting vehicles of actual residents titled in state, it would apply the sales tax provision only to vehicles bought, say, in the past year, in order to avoid create an incentive for people going out of state specifically to buy a car. Why does somebody have to pay sales tax in one location, not even knowing he’ll end up some day in Louisiana, and then pay it again coming here? It’s not “insufficient commitment” to the state, it’s not wanting to pay an absurd fee.

But Edwards neither seems to understand the chilling effect of this bill nor that it treats a symptom rather than the disease, either because he’s not that bright or he’d rather try to drum up a populist issue to redound to his future electoral benefit than instead to make a serious effort at increasing in-state vehicle registrations. Nor does he appear to grasp its questionable constitutionality. Regardless, the Senate would do well to reject it in its present form, or to amend it to get at the real problem of an unjustifiable fee.

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