The first piece of legislation filed for the 2019 legislative session may already be doomed.
Gov. Doug Ducey hinted on Tuesday that he will not sign any legislation repealing a new vehicle-license registration fee, despite the fee coming in higher than anticipated.
“That’s not on our priority list,” Ducey told reporters, when asked if he would support such a repeal.
Ducey’s comments followed the filing of the first bill for the upcoming legislative, which aims to undo the fee the governor signed into law this year. Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, introduced legislation last week to repeal the fee that is anticipated to bring in $185 million from state motorists in order to fund highway patrol.
When lawmakers passed the legislation earlier this year, they were told the fee assessed would likely be about $18 per motorist per year and would be charged when residents renewed their vehicle registration. The fee is set by the director of the Department of Transportation. And when the final number for the vehicle fee was announced late last month, it came out to $32 per vehicle — a 77 percent increase from what lawmakers anticipated.
The vehicle-license fee had strong support from Ducey during the legislative session because it halted the need for lawmakers to sweep funds earmarked for road construction and repair to fund the highway patrol. Beyond that, the measure was pitched as way to free up other dollars in the state budget in order to fund the governor’s legislative priorities — specifically, to help fund teacher pay raises.
Ducey did not outright say he would veto any bills repealing the fee, but he dismissed the public safety fee as a done deal.
“That’s been passed,” he said Tuesday.
ADOT Director John Halikowski was tasked with calculating the cost of operation for the Department of Public Safety’s Highway Patrol division. The new fee would cover the total, including a ten-percent buffer.
The Highway Patrol budget will be $168 million, or $185 million with the buffer, which was higher than what legislative budget analysts predicted earlier this year.
Couple that with fewer motorists to charge than state budget analysts projected, because some drivers already prepaid their registrations for two or five years, and that’s how ADOT arrived at the $32 figure.
Although the actual fee was higher than projected, Ducey expressed no regrets in signing the bill enacting the new vehicle-registration fee earlier this year.
“There is a fee and we will leave it to ADOT to set the fee,” Ducey said.
Ugenti-Rita, who voted against the fee in February, fundamentally opposed the way lawmakers approved it — via a work-around the Legislature used to avoid a two-thirds majority vote to pass the fee. It was the “worst way to govern,” she said.
A 1992 voter-approved constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote from both legislative chambers to pass a tax increase. Ugenti-Rita called the Legislature’s actions in allowing the ADOT director to set the fee “sneaky.”
The maneuver allowed lawmakers to pass the measure with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote.
“The process was violated,” Ugenti-Rita said. “It cut the public out of the discussion by introducing it with the agency director setting a ‘fee’ and not having it introduced the traditional way, which is to put the dollar amount in statute.”
As legislation implementing the fee was advancing through the Legislature, opponents cried foul, calling the fee a tax increase. Ducey, who promised not to raise taxes while in office, maintains that it is a fee and not a tax. Passing the fee through the Legislature by a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote gives the governor more ground to stand on his argument.
Some other Republican lawmakers are also irked the new fee came in higher than expected, and similar to Ugenti-Rita, are mulling over the idea of introducing legislation to repeal or cap the fee.
While he hasn’t filed any legislation to that effect, Sen. Warren Petersen wants to cap the fee at $18 — the amount budget analysts originally projected.
But Ducey’s comments today indicate any such legislation may be a lost cause.
Staff writer Ben Giles contributed to this report.