Driver’s license charge sparks legislative concerns

Legislative hearing likely on privatization project

State lawmakers may hold a special committee hearing on a plan by the Jindal administration that means higher charges for some driver’s license renewals in exchange for more convenience, officials said Friday.

“I think the major fear is the cost to the average consumer,” said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part.

State Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, was even blunter.

“You shouldn’t be able to raise a fee or a tax unless it goes in front of the Legislature,” Havard said. “Ultimately, we are responsible for the budget.”

The issue stems from a plan by the state Office of Motor Vehicles.

The agency is running pilot projects in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which could be expanded statewide, that allows public tag agents to handle driver’s license renewals, and charge up to $18 more per transaction.

Renewals at state government-run offices typically cost $21.50, plus $8 for motorcycle endorsements.

They are good for four years.

Backers said some motorists are willing to pay more — called a convenience fee — because of the shortened wait times. “People are already doing that in very large numbers,” said State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson.

“We are not closing a location,” Edmonson said. “We are not taking away the ability to go to a parish location.”

But St. Germain said she is preparing a request to legislative leaders to hold a hearing on the changes by a legislative oversight panel. She said she has been urged to do so by half a dozen or so other House members.

“I want a clarification, that is what I really want,” St. Germain said. “We are always worried about not raising fees and not raising taxes.”

Havard said the higher driver’s license renewal charge amounts to a tax.

“And the governor has vetoed every tax increase there is,” Havard said. “That is exactly what this is.”

One of the pilot projects that will help determine whether to expand the program statewide is going on at a branch of the Office of Motor Vehicles on Siegen Lane at Perkins Road.

A private company has taken over the facility’s lease and operations.

A similar trial run is taking place in Metairie.

Privatization efforts by Gov. Bobby Jindal have sparked several controversies, with backers arguing that they improve efficiency and critics saying they enrich private firms and force state employee layoffs.

The state has about 120 public tag agents.

They are already authorized to do car title registrations, change of car ownership, registration renewals and brake tags for customers, such as car dealerships, for a higher price than the state charges.

Aside from driver’s license renewals the change would also allow the agents to issue handicap identification cards.

St. Germain said lawmakers are also puzzled on why the state used an emergency rule to test the changes.

Edmonson said that, when the authority of public tag agents was expanded in the 1980s, it was always envisioned that they would handle driver’s license renewals.

Mark Ballard of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.