Higher driver’s license fee gets panel’s blessing

Despite questions about affordability and other issues, a legislative panel gave its blessing Monday to a Jindal administration plan that allows extra charges to renew a driver’s license for those seeking faster service.

The new rules, which have been tested in Metairie and Slidell and are expected in Baton Rouge soon, allow private contractors, called “public tag agents,” to charge up to $18 more than the typical $21.50 fee.

The hearing was sparked by questions and criticism from lawmakers last month, including complaints that the $18 charge amounted to a fee or tax that required legislative approval.

Members of the Louisiana House Transportation Committee peppered State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson with questions and concerns about the program for nearly an hour.

However, the panel eventually endorsed the proposal, which initially was rolled out as an emergency rule in two locations with an eye toward statewide expansion.

“I think it is simply a convenience,” Edmonson said.

Louisiana’s 2.9 million motorists have typically renewed their license at Office of Motor Vehicle offices, which operate in all 64 parishes, or online.

Public tag agents offer a third option, and presumably one that is faster than visiting a state office.

They are private citizens or firms that contract with the state to perform some motor vehicle services.

The state has 108 of the agents, 16 have applications pending and 32 have purchased machines needed to perform a wide range of services.

However, the $18 convenience fee has sparked some worries.

“I had some people concerned about it too,” said state Rep. Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte and a member of the committee.

“Some of the public is antsy when they have to pay more than they pay now,” LeBas said.

He also said some Office of Motor Vehicle employees are nervous that, as work moves to public tag agents, there is an increasing chance they will lose their jobs.

Edmonson repeatedly said he has not laid off any workers during his six years as superintendent and has no plans to do so.

He said any state office closures would have to go through the Legislature.

State Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek, echoed some of LeBas’ points.

“I have a lot of constituents who are very concerned about this,” Hill told Edmonson. “A lot of times they don’t have the $18 to pay.”

State Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, cited an 11-month-old report by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

The review said that, while public tag agents saved the state at least $3.3 million per year, he questioned whether consumers were paying more than an $18 markup for the convenience.

Purpera said 66 percent of the state’s agents got off without what was supposed to be a required audit one year and 62 percent did so in another year reviewed.

“This audit is not very kind,” said Landry, a former state police superintendent himself.

Edmonson said that, if the state learns a public tag agent is charging more than $18 extra, his or her contract can be terminated.

He also said that, while not mentioned in the audit, those responsible for auditing tag agents have been changed and the reviews are more efficient.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, who last month said she was concerned about the impact of the $18 charge on consumers, appeared satisfied with Edmonson’s explanation of the program.

A public tag agent is operating at a branch on Siegen Lane at Perkins Road. Two state employees still work there and handle driver’s license renewals.