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.”