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Panel refuses to halt LA inspection money grab

The handling of HB 597 provides an object lesson in how not to erase a bad statute from the books.

Earlier this week, the Louisiana House of Representatives’ Transportation, Highways, and Public Works Committee tossed aside the bill by state Rep. Larry Bagley that would have ended the necessity of vehicles, with the exception of those garaged in parishes – at present East Baton Rouge and four surrounding it – under federal clean air jurisdiction, to have inspections. As originally written, the state would have joined 42 others that do not have an annual or biannual requirement for all passenger vehicles.

Inspections meant something a half-century ago in an era of far less durable vehicles and without modern safety features. Data from about a decade ago when cars were significantly less safe than now show only a little over one percent of all accidents occur because of something wrong with the vehicle that would be part of an inspection – and involved items that easily could fail in between annual or biannual inspections with little warning, meaning it would be blind luck if an inspection happened to pick up on it right before failure.

Instead, these have become an excuse for the state and local jurisdictions as well as inspection stations (mostly automotive parts and repair shops) to rake in money for nothing. Typically, the state gets $5.25 per vehicle (in New Orleans, its grandfathered program shunts often almost five times that amount to the city). That explains why the State Police testified in a negative tone on the bill on the basis of mythical safety concerns, echoed by state Rep. Terry Landry, former head of the agency, in committee hearings.

Perhaps aware the safety argument long ago had become moot or that inspections had little to do with assurance of that, state police also argued that the absence of the sticker meant the car in question had a serious problem and/or wasn’t insured (the inspection process mandates proof of insurance). Bearing in mind that the very small incidence of accidents from items relevant to an inspection and that serious problems frequently manifest themselves noticeably even to the casual observer, lack of sticker would tell little beyond the obvious. Further, if used as a proxy for insurance, the state, upon notification from an insurance company of vehicle coverage, could mail a sticker to the operator for application (and if a two-year sticker, theoretically insurance could lapse for a year, mooting the point of the sticker as an indicator).

Unfortunately, Bagley did not take this approach in pitching the bill. Instead, he catered to it by amending his instrument to propose fee retention through a self-inspection approach. Ironically, he complained about inspectors going through the motions as a kind of fraud (his numbers indicate its rate is about 40 percent), yet this proposal might have encouraged even more of that. The State Police and Department of Motor Vehicles (for administrative costs) would have continued to receive as much money as before. In fact, Landry in his comments stuck up for the middlemen cut out, calling it “economic development.”

Landry also spun a long list of red herrings about vehicles that would violate regulations that inspections would cover. But those kinds of things police could note by appearance, and, as Bagley did point out, these vehicles often had stickers from lackadaisical inspectors that clearly would not have passed code.

Having constructed a boondoggle, the committee rejected Bagley’s mess. He should have gone directly after the safety claim (he obliquely addressed it by saying waiting 12 or 24 months, with so much that can happen in between, meant safety could not be the issue) and demonstrated the program existed almost exclusively to generate revenue for practically no service performed.

This issue desperately needs revisiting, and Bagley or whoever take it up needs to cast a spotlight on government greed. Maybe then that would shame legislators into admitting this money grab needlessly puts the bite on the citizenry and only then will the practice end.

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