Proposals Would Boost Fees On Louisiana Drivers, Car Buyers

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's motorists could be hit with $79 million in fee hikes if budget-balancing proposals under consideration by state legislators become law.

         Senators have attached a $60 million annual fee increase on two House bills that would have drivers paying $50 more in title fees when they buy a car. Also being discussed in the Senate as a possible add-on to legislation is a nearly $40 hike to the cost of a driver's license, to raise $19 million a year.

         Supporters say the changes would cover the costs of providing services, noting the fees haven't been raised in decades. Whether lawmakers are willing to boost drivers' costs in an election year remains unclear, with only two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

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         Gov. Bobby Jindal's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, offered the ideas as suggestions for consideration during a Senate budget hearing this week.

         The big-ticket fee proposals come as lawmakers look for ways to scrounge up money for next year's budget, and as they seek to stop diverting large sums of state gasoline tax revenue away from roadwork to instead pay for state police operations.

         "We are clearly trying to figure out how to balance the budget, and for me, it's about more than just balancing the budget. It's about getting state police out of that transportation trust fund," said Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton.

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         More than $345 million in gas tax money from the state transportation trust fund has been steered to the state police in the past decade, and Jindal proposed shifting another $72 million next year even as Louisiana has a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge work.

         The Louisiana State Police and the Office of Motor Vehicles both fall under the Department of Public Safety, so lawmakers believe that if they raise drivers' fees, those dollars could stay in the department and eliminate the need for the diversion of gas tax money.

         State Police Col. Mike Edmonson, who heads the Public Safety Department, said if those dollars were stripped without a replacement, "It would be a major hit to state police. It would be layoffs. It would be possibly closure of troops."

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         Edmonson said the fee increase proposals stem from conversations with legislative leaders who asked him to determine whether his agency's fees covered the costs of providing the services.

         So far, only the title fee has been attached to legislation, added in Senate committee to bills by Reps. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and Sherman Mack, R-Livingston. Both await hearings before the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

         The proposal would increase from $18.50 to $68.50 the title fee paid when a person buys a new or used car and the salvage title fee when a wrecked vehicle is deemed a total loss and either disassembled or sold. It also would bump from $15 to $65 the permit to sell that allows a towing company or repair facility to sell vehicles abandoned by their owners.

         "We can't continue to raid the transportation trust fund and then complain that our roads and bridges are in deplorable condition," said Henry.

         Adley, meanwhile, said he is looking for bills to which he could attach the driver's license fee increase. The proposal floated by the Jindal administration would boost the fee for a basic, six-year driver's license by $39.50, nearly doubling the current cost of $42.75.

         Henry said he won't agree to a driver's license fee increase being added to his bill.

         "At this point, I'm definitely not willing to raise the cost of a driver's license, and I don't think the House would be willing to pass that type of increase," he said. "We'll be lucky to get the title fee increase."

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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