Originally Published: December 11, 2018 10:20 p.m.
PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey signaled that state lawmakers should back off plans to repeal or reduce a new $32-a-vehicle registration fee to pay to operate the Highway Patrol.
Ducey said Tuesday that the $10.4 billion budget he signed for the current fiscal year is built on the presumption that the state will collect $185 million from the new fee. That’s enough to pay not just for the Highway Patrol but also provide an extra 10 percent.
More to the point, the governor said the new budget he will propose next month for the coming fiscal year also will rely on the revenues from that fee.
But Ducey sidestepped questions of whether voters -- and the lawmakers who approved the fee -- were misled because they were told when it was first approved that the fee would be in the $18 range.
He pointed out that lawmakers specifically directed John Halikowski, director of the state Department of Transportation, to set the fee based on the Highway Patrol budget. And the governor said that’s precisely what Halikowski did in computing the fee at $32 versus what were estimates provided to lawmakers.
Ducey’s warning comes as Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, already has introduced legislation to void the fee even as the first notices of the new charge are going out this month for vehicle registrations up for renewal in January. And other lawmakers, including Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who actually crafted the idea for the fee, are weighing ways to reduce it.
The governor, for his part, isn’t hearing any of it.
“That’s been passed,’’ he said. “There is a fee.’’
And as far as how much that fee is, “we will leave it to ADOT.’’
Ugenti-Rita told Capitol Media Services she won’t be deterred from pursuing the issue even with the threat of a Ducey veto.
“I understand that’s a real possibility,’’ she said.
But Ugenti-Rita said she already has lined up support for SB 1001.
“I will do my job as a legislator by introducing a bill that I think that the voters in Arizona support,’’ she explained. “I’m willing to use the process and see what happens and ultimately realize it’s within his prerogative to veto.’’
There is a way around the governor.
Lawmakers can override a veto with a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate. But the last time that happened was more than 35 years ago.
Ugenti-Rita, however, called that possibility “way too premature to even respond.’’
If nothing else, she hopes to provoke a debate about the end-run that was made around the normal process for establishing new levies.
The goal of the fee was to wean the Highway Patrol away from its dependence on gasoline taxes and regular vehicle registration fees. That, in turn, would free up those dollars for needed road construction and repair projects.
Unable to get the constitutionally required two-thirds vote to set a new fee, Campbell crafted a workaround: Establish the fee but leave it up to Halikowski to determine how much it needs to be to cover the Highway Patrol costs. That needed just a simple majority.
But what caused the dust-up is that Campbell, in pushing the plan, was relying on estimates by legislative budget staffers who computed Highway Patrol spending and the number of vehicles on the road. That simple math led to a fee of $18 a year.
What went wrong is that the Highway Patrol budget, which was $135 million last year, ballooned to $167 million after the agency added money for new staffers and to pay for retirement costs. And with some motorists having multi-year registrations not due this year, that pushed the burden onto the backs of everyone else who are getting new vehicles or have to renew their plates, to the tune of $32 for every car, truck, motorcycle and trailer.
Ducey said as far as he’s concerned, ADOT did what it was supposed to do, even if the per-vehicle fee ended up being higher than advertised at the time.