We are in complete agreement with State Sen. Michele Ugenti-Rita’s furious complaint against the Arizona Department of Transportation.
The Senator went public last week with her displeasure that the agency was collecting a $32 fee from motorists who are renewing their vehicle registration in July for 2021-2022. She compared ADOT’s behavior to that of a “snake-oil” salesman, referring to what she believes is a deceptive practice.
We agree with her assessment.
Drivers who are renewing their vehicle registration before their existing registration expires are charged the fee, even though the Legislature was specific in requiring that the additional charge end on June 30, 2021. Vehicle owners who renew their license sticker beginning on July 1 won’t have to pay the fee.
Sen. Ugenti-Rita argues that since lawmakers overwhelmingly wanted the additional charge to end June 30, ADOT should not be collecting the fee from conscientious drivers who want to renew for the period after that date.
ADOT”s action will gyp $5.3 million out of the pockets of the 166,793 vehicle owners who are renewing their registrations that expire at the end of this month.
We hope lawmakers have learned their lesson when it comes to empowering a state agency with the authority to establish and collect its own revenue. Despite Ugenti-Rita’s righteous plea, the origin of this issue began in 2018 when legislators — including the senator — thought they could avoid the wrath of voters for increasing the voter registration fee. Rather that firmly establishing a set fee around $15 to generate much-needed funding for road construction, lawmakers thought they could cleverly push the unpopular decision onto ADOT.
The bill passed by both chambers of the Legislature stated specifically that the agency would be responsible for determining how much the registration fee should be increased.
When ADOT came back with a $32 charge, lawmakers were outraged, pointing out that it was more than double what was expected. By that time, however, it was too late to change the charge because Gov. Ducey had included the additional revenue generated by the fee into his budget as a means to increase funding for state troopers. Lawmakers unwillingly went along and drivers have been paying the special registration charge ever since.
Voters were clearly not happy.
Returning to session in 2019, lawmakers fresh off an election came to the capital ready to do whatever was necessary to rescind the additional charge. Public outcry convinced the Legislature that they would have to find another way to raise the funds. Led by Ugenti-Rita, who was in the House of Representatives at the time, lawmakers passed a bill to rescind the fee, sunsetting the collection on June 30, 2021.
Little did she know at the time that ADOT interpreted the new mandate as empowering the agency to collect the charge “through” June 30, and not interpreting it as collecting the fee for drivers whose registration ends “on” June 30.
As a result, ADOT is behaving the way most bureaucratic agencies behave when they are empowered to set their own rules.
They are taking advantage of the situation.
This originally appeared in the Sierra Vista Herald.