BEAM: That $18 Driver’s License Fee Looks Like A Tax

Would you pay an extra $18 to avoid having to wait a long time to renew your Louisiana driver’s license? That $18 would be in addition to the $21.50 most of those renewals cost at state motor vehicle offices.

If you are wondering why the extra cost, it has to do with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s privatization program and with state budget cuts affecting motor vehicle offices. Jindal and others believe the private sector can do these things more efficiently, and there is some truth to that. However, companies that take on these responsibilities aren’t going to do it for free. And that is where the $18 comes into play.

The same thing is proving true in the governor’s decision to turn over charity hospital operations to private companies. Lake Charles Memorial Hospital took over responsibility for citizens served by Moss Regional Hospital, and the agreement appears to be working well. But the research foundation running LSU’s Shreveport and Monroe hospitals wants the state to pay more than $120 million in hospital improvements and expansions.

Legislators will make that decision when they debate the 2014-15 state construction budget known as the capital outlay bill. State Sen. Greg Tarver, a Shreveport Democrat, said he would support some deferred maintenance costs that existed prior to the switch to a private company. Other lawmakers will help decide what eventually happens, but Tarver said facility expansions are out of the question as far as he is concerned.

Officials with the state Division of Administration wouldn’t say whether they would support the changes requested in Shreveport and Monroe, but the odds are they will because this is their privatization baby. You know the governor’s team wants it to succeed, at whatever cost.

We will keep you posted on that issue, but let’s get back to the driver’s license situation.

The Associated Press reported early last month that wait times at some state motor vehicle offices have increased by as much as an hour and a half. The Legislative Fiscal Office said wait times at small offices averaged 8 minutes in 2009, 9 minutes at medium-sized offices and 16 minutes at larger offices. By 2013, those wait times had grown to averages of 45 minutes, 65 minutes and 90 minutes, respectively.

The Office of Motor Vehicles has come up with a program that makes it possible for drivers to renew their licenses quicker with public tag agents. Those are private businesses that already process vehicle registrations and certificates of title, convert license plates, transfer plates, replace lost or stolen plates and inspection stickers and handle other vehicle paperwork.

The new program that costs drivers an extra $18 to renew their licenses is already under way in Baton Rouge and Metairie. Other locations will be added to the program over the next few months.

Most motorists in this part of the state aren’t familiar with public tag agents because there are few of them in the area. The name comes from brake tag agents who have been doing vehicle inspections in other parts of the state for a long time. Drivers in this area will need to know more about public tag agents and where they are located before the new program can be tried here.

Some motorists will be happy to pay an extra $18 to save time, but it isn’t going to be popular with everyone. The Advocate said critics call the extra charge a fee hike, which requires approval from the Legislature, and that our anti-tax governor has no business pushing a back-door fee hike.

That isn’t the only problem. The legislative auditor said the state saved at least $3.3 million in one year by letting public tag agents handle vehicle registration services, but there is a downside. The auditor said the motor vehicle office didn’t monitor what public tag agents are charging. But even if they were charging only $18 for each registration, the auditor said the top two agents in the state would have collected $2.1 million and $1.1 million, respectively.

The Advocate said consumers paid $57 to register their vehicles with public tag agents instead of the $39 they would have paid at state motor vehicle offices.

Yes, private companies may do things more efficiently than government, but the public in many cases ends up paying more for the same services it got from state government. If the Jindal administration is going to continue to farm out state responsibilities, it should do a better follow-up job to ensure that citizens aren’t subsidizing privatization.

You have to admire the way this latest effort is being promoted by the administration. The extra $18 to renew a driver’s license is being called a convenience fee that people don’t have to pay if they don’t mind waiting in line at the motor vehicle office. Critics prefer to call it a fee hike or a tax.

No one should be surprised about this extra $18 to renew a driver’s license. It is typical of how Jindal operates. The governor bragged about giving higher education $142 million more in his proposed 2014-15 state budget, but about $88 million of that will come from higher tuition and student fee increases.

Privatization may be the way to go, but it doesn’t always come cheap. Those higher fees charged by private companies are just like taxes. The consumers always end up paying the bills.

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