Higher driver's license fee may fuel backlash

To add a little cash to the transportation budget, legislators boosted the fee by 80 percent.

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Well, it looks like state lawmakers are interested in boosting the economy -- or, at least, keeping Tim Eyman employed.

Eyman, who has made a living running initiative campaigns challenging state fees and taxes, was handed yet another opportunity when the Legislature approved a transportation budget that included an 80 percent hike in the cost of a driver's license. In addition to the $54 fee for a license good for six years, lawmakers tripled the cost for a vehicle title to $15 and added a $10 fee for original-issue vehicle license plates.

It was outrage over the excessive -- and escalating -- cost of car license tabs that put Eyman on the throne as the state's initiative king. In 1999, Eyman pushed Initiative 695 that repealed the motor vehicle excise tax, which was more than 2 percent of the value of the vehicle, and replaced it with a $30 flat fee. I-695 was opposed by almost every establishment group but it easily passed because car owners were tired of paying $400 or more every year to renew their car tabs.

Since then, state lawmakers and local governments have been adding to the license tab fees. In some parts of the state the fees start at $43.75 and can go over $100 depending on the size and type of vehicle and what fees local governments have added.

At some point, the public will be itching to revolt again and Eyman won't miss the opportunity to orchestrate another initiative campaign.

We understand the need to fund road construction and repairs. It's also critical the infrastructure be improved.

A governor's task force looked at the long-range needs for Washington's transportation infrastructure. It concluded there are bridges in need of replacement, roads overdue for repair and an overstretched, aging ferry system. The task force determined the state needs to raise $21 billion over 10 years to shore up its transportation needs.

But all the Legislature did was put a Band-Aid on the problem, using the higher fees already mentioned along with a few others to add $57 million to transportation funding over the next two years. The higher fees won't be enough to sustain real improvement, they will simply retain the status quo -- and irk one-sixth of the motoring population every year when folks renew their driver's license.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has called for legislators to approve a $3.6 billion transportation funding package for the next 10 years, which would be funded in part by a $1.50 fee on each barrel of oil refined in the state. The oil companies have a better lobby than drivers, and the plan couldn't get traction in the Senate.

Legislators, when they convene next year after the November election, need to take on the issue of long-term funding for transportation.

And, unfortunately, they could be faced with a problem with short-term funding. That 80 percent increase in driver's license fee might be just enough to ignite another revolt-by-initiative.

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