New vehicle registration fee hurts the poor, needs accountability, critics say

A new fee on vehicle registrations is designed to fully fund the Highway Patrol. Photo by Arizona State Troopers Association | Flickr

The new public safety fee all Arizona vehicle-owners will face next year to fund the Arizona Department of Public Safety will hurt Arizona’s poor disproportionately, said Tomas Robles, co-executive director of Living United for Change Arizona, an advocacy nonprofit for working families.

“Sometimes, paying a registration means using your entire paycheck,” Robles said. “A last-minute additional fee could hurt a lot of people – especially those whose registrations are due in the beginning of the year.”

The bill the legislature passed and Gov. Doug Ducey signed in April estimated the fee would be $18, based on the planned Highway Patrol Fund for fiscal year 2019 divided by the 8.3 million registered vehicles in Arizona. In reality, the fund was 25 percent higher, and only 5.8 million vehicles have their registrations due next year. As a result, the fee will be $32, 78 percent greater than anticipated, said Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Doug Nick.

The law gives the ADOT director the authority to determine the fee amount.

The fee is required to fund all of the Highway Patrol budget plus 10 percent, providing a new revenue source for the main duties of the Department of Public Safety. For more than 10 years, those operations were funded through the Arizona Highway User Revenue Fund, the gas-tax account that supports roadway maintenance and construction.

Robles said he anticipates the sudden increase to lead to people missing their registration deadline, and therefore more stops by law enforcement.

Tom Rex, associate director of ASU’s Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research, said an extra $32 is “pretty minor” for most people. But he added the fee “piles on” what already is a highly regressive tax structure in Arizona which, by definition, harms lower-income earners at a greater rate.

Other groups – like the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian public policy think tank, and  Arizona Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that advocates for consumers – agree there’s a fundamental point in the new fee that’s troubling: An agency director shouldn’t have the ability to set fees on the public without transparency and accountability.

Diane Brown, executive director of Arizona PIRG, said lawmakers and the public should have an opportunity to scrutinize and push back on why the fee jumped from the expected $18 to $32. She added a fee for all vehicle-owners is appropriate.

“But vehicle-related fees need to be justified and transparent in order for Arizonans and policymakers to ensure money is necessary and spent prudently,” Brown said.

Christina Sandefur, vice president of the Goldwater Institute, was the attorney for a group of legislators who lost a legal challenge to a similar agency-directed fee that she said paved the way for this vehicle fee. Last year, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a provision under the state’s Medicaid expansion plan that allows the state’s Medicaid director to set a fee on Arizona hospitals. The Supreme Court said the fee is not a tax, and therefore not covered by the provision in the state Constitution requiring new taxes to be approved by two-thirds of each legislative chamber.    

Sandefur said the ADOT Public Safety fee is an expected result from the ruling.

“This is precisely what’s to be expected when the legislature delegates its revenue-raising authority to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats,” Sandefur said. “(The ruling) creates a perverse incentive that encourages less responsible and less accountable lawmaking.”

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, filed Dec. 7 a bill to repeal the fee.

“I’m filing this on behalf of my constituents. I heard from them. They forwarded the email from ADOT. They were outraged,” Ugenti-Rita told The Arizona Republic. “We have allowed a bureaucrat to now set a tax.”

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

4 COMMENTS

  1. “But vehicle-related fees need to be justified and transparent in order for Arizonans and policymakers to ensure money is necessary and spent prudently,” Brown said. HAH! Arizona money spent prudently? If it were spent prudently we would have decent roads and a far more bankrolled public education system (and I don’t mean charters here) than we have. Clearly spending prudently is in no way a priority for our Arizona legislature. As I am fond of saying–if we were a different country, the US would have invaded us for our level of corruption by now. Arizona politics are amazing. Thanks to the Mirror for stories on things like this!

  2. Over the years we have seent the degradation of manadated services the DPS has been dirceted by statute to privode to city and county law enforcement agencies. While the servioces have suffered and criminals have gone free and undetected, we have seen waste and bloat grow along with pet projects for the director and comman staff. LIke diverting funds for a system to track violent criminals and sexual predators being used for a new website or a million dollar gym at headquarters to prorvide the DPS headquarters gym rats a new place to work out. All while the highway patrol struggles to provide services and the state crime lab has become increasingly ineffective. DPS’s once highly respected state narcotics unit and criminal intelligence units are all but gone allowing organized crime in Arizona to grow and prosper. Now DPS has wangled a way to get hundreds of millions of tax dollars with no idea how it’ll be spent or wasted. DPS needs to be accountable and the State Legislature needs to fund DPS accordingly not just given them carte blanch with our tax money that they have already shown they can piss away.

  3. Doug Douchey and the other corrupt, greedy bastards keep giving larger and larger tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest while burdening everyone else with more and more fees and taxes and starving students, teachers and those needing health care to pay for them.They must be stopped: Protest,Write,Call,Vote

  4. The people who voted the corrupt legislators into office are just as responsible as the corrupt legislators that pass these laws. Find out who supported the law and start a recall petition on them. Find out who voted for the law and vote the guilty out of office. We need a web site that shows what law is up for vote and which person is bringing it up for a vote and who votes yes or nea on the law. The current legislators should be made to pass a law that blocks this type of law. If they do not then the citizens should start a referendum to change the law or the constitution to prevent people from setting fees/taxes without proper oversight.

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