SADOW: The Demagogues In The Legislature Are At It Again

With a $25 billion spending planup for grabs and related issues such as the use of nonrecurring funds in it, legal imperatives to pay back the state’s rainy-day fund, and absence of any counterproductive Medicaid expansion, it turns out the biggest gripe that legislators have with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget is convenience fees for drivers’ licenses?

After presentation last week of the document, a few legislators seemed more upset than anything else over the Office of Motor Vehicles plan to expand service offerings through private entities for an increased fee. Currently, about 120 private operators perform some services dealing with titles, registrations, and insurance reinstatements, but now two also can perform license and identification issuances and renewals, for which the Department of Public Safety allows them to charge an additional fee. DPS wishes to expand this program statewide.

No hue and cry emerged from the Legislature in 2001 when the original set of services was let to private providers with their additional fees. But this one seems to have struck a nerve among the more excitable, if less cogent, legislators. Indeed, state Rep. Kenny Havardno stranger he to making stupid statements in trying to prevent making government smaller – wailed that the Legislature ought to have final authority over every change of tax or fee but implied it was obligated in this case because the higher charge amounted to a tax. The Constitution states that the Legislature must approve of all tax increases by a two-thirds vote.

How it might do this any time soon is a mystery, because the 2014 regular session is designated as “general” and only in odd-numbered years may the Legislature consider tax increases in regular session. But an even greater mystery is to find any logic at all behind Havard’s thinking, although the intellectual laziness into which he falls happens all too often  on this subject when politics triumphs over principle. Simply, when a charge is reasonably related to the function it is funding and its cost, and it is initiated voluntarily as part of a transaction by a user without government compulsion in order to receive that reasonably-related service, it is a fee, not a tax.

As explained by DPS, the extra fee is for convenience with this already established by precedence for registrations, titles, and reinstatements. Further, every parish will continue to have at least one location where the extra fee will not be charged. While the two government locations in East Baton Rouge Parish were halved in number by privatizing one of these, the other location will continue to operate. And in the other pilot location, Jefferson Parish, one additional privatized location was created. To use simple, concrete terms that perhaps even Havard can understand, in every parish of the state nobody is having a gun put to their head and forced to pay an extra $18 for a license or identification issuance or renewal; they have a choice. It’s not a tax.

Of actual validity is the idea that the Legislature should review the action, especially, as state Rep. Karen St. Germain noted, since it was initiated through the emergency rule-making process taking effect Jan. 13. That statute invites legislative inquiry after a certain period and allows it to invalidate that rule by its discretion – although by the time it could take up the matter the Legislature would be in session and the emergency rule already more than halfway through its allowed 120-day life.

But as St. Germain expressed puzzlement over why the rule bypassed the normal process, to dispel that she should introduce herself to the Louisiana Register, where by law the reason for this must be stated. Once she knows what that is, she can turn to the January, 2014 version (they always come out on the 20th of a month and contain all rules issued from the 11th of the previous month up to the 10th of that month) and read why: DPS has permanent rules due out no earlier than Feb. 20 and vendors had already invested the time and resources to start now. Whether she thinks this imperils “the public safety and welfare” required by law for justification in another matter, but there’s the reason.

In any event, the fee, the payment of which is left purely to the discretion of users who may wish a shorter turnaround time, as long as service provision for non-payers remains adequate, seems quite reasonable as a means to increase system capacity at no additional taxpayer cost. Unless, of course, you are a legislator wishing to bring attention to yourself primarily and to deal honesty with the issue secondarily, which then triggers fake outrage over fake tax increases in an attempt to score political points.

Regrettably, such posturing for political consumption is more the norm than the exception for the Louisiana Legislature, which in 2010 repealed general fee increases for OMV not because they didn’t reasonably relate to the actual cost of performing the services, but because it allowed them to posture as protecting the pocketbooks of citizens and to hand what they saw as a legislative defeat to their ideological opponent Jindal. Even if he hardly can be expected to meddle in such minute affairs, he has OMV in DPS under his ultimate authority, so in these zealots’ eyes when they reverse executive branch policy of any kind they become Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, when in reality they much more resemble kids tossing Baby Ruth bars into a pool.

To score political points explains why so much is getting made of so little. If the Legislature does decide to review the rule, let’s hope, perhaps against hope, that it actually ends up conducting this seriously and maturely, rather than with the demagoguery it’s more prone to pursue on this kind of issue.

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