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Hypocrisy, demagoguery swamp real fee hike issue

Look no further than the continuing soap opera concerning a hike in drivers’ license fees for individuals from $21.50 to $36.50 over a four year period for an example of how political considerations overwhelm clear thinking, distract rather than seriously debate true issues, and promote demagoguery instead of genuine leadership and governance.

A 1989 law gave the state the ability to raise the fee at any time and it did at that time for some kinds of licenses. But it didn’t for over two decades for individual ones, and only in February did the Department of Public Safety announce it was going to do so. It took about a month for that to hit the collective consciousness of state legislators and the public, right before the increase went into effect, and many expressed disappointment.

For some state legislators, outrage better described their reactions. Of them, in some cases the fee increase alone was obnoxious enough. This should have been the most important issue all along, whether the activities of the department justified the increased fee, and, if not, the question then framed as whether the excess should be used to fund other areas of state government and/or increased activities of the department.

But the simple and emotional tend to chase away the complex and rational (one doesn’t have to look to Baton Rouge to see a demonstration of this; Washington, D.C. especially since the beginning of 2009 presents all the corroborating evidence needed), and so the real controversy has become submerged by two other issues. One is whether the increase was legal, which some of the most vocal opponents of it insisted it was not.

While this is an important consideration, quickly demagoguery washed away its seriousness. State Sen. Joe McPherson authored SB 407 which would reverse the hike for individual (Class D) licenses and refund to all who paid already the increase. He also asked for an opinion from Attorney General Buddy Caldwell that sought clarification about whether this was really a tax increase, therefore had it been done legally, even if it were a fee increase whether it comported to constitutional changes in 1995, whether amendment to the 1989 law in 1993 was an unconstitutional revenue-raising measure from the Senate, and whether it fell under rule-making authority which would have prevented the increase from happening as it did.

No doubt McPherson did not like Caldwell’s Opinion 10-0068 which answered negative on all of these. Despite this, he has continued since in the arguing for his bill some of the things explicitly addressed as false by Caldwell; for example, still calling the fee increase a “tax increase.” He’s not the only one who keeps trying to argue issues that don’t exist: state Sen. Robert Adley keeps insisting the constitutional violations alleged and disproven by Caldwell exist, and at least one commentator of the controversy (echoed to varying degrees by others all of whom should know better) still misrepresents the hike as an “illegal tax increase.” (One shouldn’t need a legal opinion, however, to understand conceptually the logical difference between a fee and tax.)

Which points to the other, even more demagogic aspect to the whole debate: simply, it is being used as an opportunity to try to poke a stick in the eye of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been adamant about not increasing taxes but who never made a similar pledge about fees. This explains why such contortions have occurred to try to take this horse of a fee increase, paint stripes on it, and call it a zebra tax increase; success in doing so makes Jindal look bad even if the bill goes nowhere.

It also underscores McPherson’s zeal in trying to pass his bill, who along with Adley has been two of Jindal’s biggest Senate critics. Successful passage would constitute a political defeat for Jindal and allow lawmakers both to assert they were doing something to help the people in tough economic times – regardless of the fact that the increase amounts to less than a cent a day and there are far more substantial budget-cutting opportunities that lead to real tax-cutting measures that the Legislature could implement – and for Jindal critics to count coup on him.

Regarding this, while McPherson never has graced political argumentation with a tremendous amount of logic, he appears willing to plunge to new lows to back his bill. For instance, when head Mike Edmonson testified the actual cost of producing a Class D drivers license in Louisiana (with the new requirements said to be behind the increase being implemented in 2008) was $45, the debate should then have focused around whether department procedures were efficient and, if not enough, whether $45 was appropriate to fund inefficiency and, if not, should changes be made to reduce the cost and perhaps the need for the fee at its new level.

Instead, McPherson took the debate into lacunae. He said the legislative auditor said the additional cost of the requirement said to justify the increase was much smaller than the increase itself. But Edmonson all along has said the state has been subsidizing the production of licenses using the general fund, from general tax dollars, rather than generated fees. While this would make the claim that the hike was necessitated solely by increased requirements dubious, if the larger argument subsumed by the demagoguery was kept first and foremost – should drivers’ licenses be paid for by users charged amounts reasonably related to the costs of the service or from taxes that bear little or no relation to the service – Edmonson has the better justification.

McPherson also claimed the Office of Motor Vehicles, part of DPS which deals with licenses, is raising some $120 million in fees but its operations only use $49 million of them. The latter figure he appears to get from the 2010-11 Executive Budget, but the former is unverified and that same budget item, even with the fee increase, reveals only around $38.8 million in “fees and self-generated revenues” is directly related to department activities. DPS as a whole is budgeted to take in $142 million or so of this, while the general fund only will contribute a little under $18 million this year, under half of what it took last year.

Gone unnoticed in all of this distraction is the hypocrisy that surrounds the debate. For example, McPherson in his request for the opinion asked whether the increase in essence violated the constitutional provision that revenue-raising taxes may not originate in the Senate. Yet last year he was an enthusiastic backer of and voted for SB 335 which would have unconstitutionally raised revenues (which never got tested as the House leadership successfully negotiated it into oblivion). Others House supporters seem blithely unconcerned about the revenue hole that would be created for this minor measure – so far there have not been any dissenting votes against it in two committee hearings – yet members of the House’s Health and Welfare Committee apparently found convincing the budget hole argument when derailing SB 348 that would have achieved the far weightier benefit of protecting people’s civil rights and liberties and perhaps their health.

Rather than reason and rationality, the whole debate over the fee increase has gotten hijacked by hypocrisy and demagoguery designed for political consumption in order to trigger political retribution, swamping the aspect, the real issue, of whether it was part of an appropriate funding level for activities of DPS. Given past standards of political discourse in Louisiana, I know it’s asking a lot to debate merit rather than to score political points, but to policy-makers (especially when the House takes up SB 407 tomorrow) I’m still doing the asking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You should stick to matters that you understand. Clearly, law isn't one.

Buddy Caldwell nor any Attorney General of Louisiana possesses the ultimate authority for legal questions. His opinions are only butt-covering for bureaucrats.

We have a separate branch of government to arbitrate legal issues.

Yours truly,

Da Judge