Fees at license offices will increase keeping offices open, under House bill signed into law

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).

Representative Jeff Knight (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

House members told some license offices could soon close; proposal would increase their fees

People that run some of the state’s license bureaus say those will close if the fees for the services they provide aren’t increased.  That could create hardships for Missourians, especially in rural areas.

Representative Jeff Knight (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Those 174 offices are operated by private entities through contracts with the state and employ roughly 1,700 Missourians.  The fees those offices charge for services like licensing vehicles, issuing licenses, and transferring vehicle titles, have not been increased since 1999.

Operators said with the state’s minimum wage about to increase; the surge in expenses they will incur as Real IDs roll out this year; and steady increases in the expenses those offices must cover for themselves, many of them don’t plan to bid to continue operating.

Lebanon Republican Jeff Knight has filed House Bill 584, which would increase the fees those offices can charge for services.  Those fees are the offices’ only source of revenue for the state services they provide.

Supporters of his bill presented the House Committee on General Laws with a list of 46 items they say the Department used to supply that license offices now must pay for – things ranging from pens and pamphlets that offices must now print themselves to fax machines and $5000 video surveillance equipment.

“In just one instance, a Gladstone office uses 10 cases of paper per week at $30 per case.  The state requires that they use a specific Lexmark laser printer with the cost of $1,000 a month in toner,” said Knight.

Crystal Webster is the Director of the Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks.  The Foundation took up operating several license offices in southwest Missouri as a way to supplement its mission of offering services to those with financial needs while fighting breast cancer.  Their contract is up this year and she said they don’t plan to rebid.

“Without something done immediately, as in this year, Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks cannot afford to rebid [the Nixa] license office.  We just can’t afford it,” said Webster.  “We got in this to subsidize our mission, right?  And so now we would be subsidizing the constituents of Missouri as they come into tag and renew their vehicles and do their driver’s license transactions.”

Backers of HB 584 told the committee if rural offices close, that will create long trips for many Missourians who will have to drive to the next closest office to conduct their business.  Knight said many older Missourians will make those long drives because they can’t or won’t conduct their business online.

Tom Raffety and his wife operate the license office in Charleston.

“When I used to live in Charleston the round trip from my house to the office was 2.2 miles.  When this office closes the round trip from my house to the other office will be 34 miles,” said Raffety.

Virginia Moore with the Brookfield license office said residents in her community would have to drive 25 miles to get to another office if hers closes.

“If we are not able to get this House bill passed, we will not rebid.  Our bid is due in October and we’re done, and I don’t know that anybody would be able to provide that service in Brookfield,” said Moore.

Knight’s proposal, House Bill 584, would increase the fee on vehicle licenses from $3.50 to $6.00 and on biennial renewals from $7 to $12; would increase the fee on a title transfer from $2.50 to $6; on operators’ licenses from $2.50 to $6; and on notices of lien processing from $2.50 to $6.

Knight said he’s proposing significant hikes in fees because it’s been so long since they’ve been increased.

“To put it in perspective in 1999 a loaded-up Dodge pickup cost $23,000.  The same vehicle today?  Over $60,000,” said Knight.

Lawmakers discussed with Knight the possibility of adding to his bill a cost of living increase for those fees, so that they would periodically be adjusted automatically and future legislatures wouldn’t be faced with the same issue years from now.

The proposal has been approved by one House committee and awaits a hearing in a second.