What Missourians are charged at the state’s 174 licenses offices will be increasing for the first time in 20 years, under legislation signed into law this week by Governor Mike Parson (R).
The language, found in House Bill 499, would increase the fees those offices can charge for services like licensing vehicles, issuing driver’s licenses, and transferring vehicle titles. Those fees are the only source of income private entities get for running those offices, and they haven’t been increased in 20 years.
Lawmakers learned that those offices’ expenses have continued to climb as the state provided less and less of the material they needed in order to operate, such as office supplies.
“Used to [be], the state would send their paper and their computers and all, but these license offices are paying for everything now on a $2.50 or $3.50 fee,” said Representative Jeff Knight (R-Lebanon), who proposed the fee hikes. “I think my easiest argument was in 1999 you could buy a fully-loaded pickup for $23,000. Now you go to a lot and that same pickup costs $80,000.”
Knight said these offices’ margins will only become narrower as the state’s minimum wage is about to increase and as the issuance of Real ID ramps up this year. He learned that because of these factors, many of the entities who run those offices were planning not to bid to have them for another term.
He believes it’s important to keep those offices open, particularly in rural areas and for the benefit of older Missourians, who are less likely to conduct business online.
“If you live in a rural area, do you want your grandfather or your grandmother to have to drive another 30, 45 minutes or even an hour? An average of $3 increase would not cover the gas it would take to drive to the next open license office, if these start closing down,” said Knight.
Lawmakers had discussed building into the bill automatic fee increases tied to inflation and other economic factors, but the language that has become law includes no such mechanism. Knight said as more Missourians switch to doing their licensing business online, the need for fee offices could diminish in the coming years, so that provision was not explored.
“No one really knows what the life expectancy of these license offices are going to be, but the more and more of it that goes to online … ten years from now there could be a discussion of whether we need these license offices,” said Knight. “We had a bill this year dealing with kiosks and digital driver’s licenses, so with the wave of the future the way it is I think this will take care of them until some of those things get put in place.”
The legislation would go into effect August 28. Knight said the operators he’s talked to said they would go ahead and re-bid to keep running their offices as long as the language became law, and that if it was in effect by then it would be soon enough for them.
Knight said the issue was more personal for him because the offices in Greene and Christian Counties are run by the non-for-profit Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks.
“I’ve had a couple of tragic instances with cancer in my family, so I kind of took it on as kind of a personal note … that organization was fantastic to my family whenever I had sisters going through this,” said Knight.
HB 499 also requires the revocation of the license of a driver who’s negligence contributed to his or her vehicle striking a highway worker in a work zone.