When it comes to the transportation debate in St. Paul, there are plenty of disagreements.
To name a few, Democrats want to raise the state’s per-gallon gas tax to pay for road and bridge improvements; Republican do not. Democrats want to raise sales taxes in the metro area to pay for transit projects; Republicans are opposed to spending money on light rail. Democrats don’t want to dedicate more of the state’s current budget to transportation; Republicans argue it’s one of government’s core responsibilities.
On Monday, however, Gov. Mark Dayton offered up a different option: Raise the price Minnesotans pay each year for those little colorful registration tabs that stick on their license plates.
Both Republicans and Democrats have left the door open to that idea so far, giving some a sliver of hope that there could be a deal on transportation funding yet this year.
Here’s a breakdown of how vehicle tab fees work in Minnesota, how lawmakers’ proposed plans would change that — and the politics behind it all:
How do vehicle tab fees work?
In Minnesota, legislators and the governor set motor vehicle tab costs in state law. Current law sets a base fee $10 to register a vehicle, but then adds on an additional cost of 1.25 percent of the value of the vehicle. That price is usually based off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, so it doesn’t matter if someone got a better deal on a car or truck than someone else.
On the high end, a brand new $60,000 vehicle is currently subject to $760 in tab fees in its first year, while a new $15,000 vehicle costs $198 in fees. The value of the vehicle goes down about 10 percent each year, the state estimates, and thus so do tab fees. After 11 years, the state simply charges vehicle owners a flat $35 fee. All told, the Federal Highway Administration estimates the average Minnesotan pays $125 in tab fees each year.
So how would that change under Dayton’s plan?
Dayton offered up two plans using license tab fees to lawmakers on Monday. The first proposal, which includes a five-cent gas tax increase, would raise $250 million a year in license tab fees by raising the base tab fee from $10 to $20 and raising the rate from 1.25 percent to 1.65 percent. Under that plan, that $60,000 brand new vehicle would be subject to $1,010 in tab fees the first year, while a $15,000 new car would cost $268 in fees. The law would also raise the minimum amount a person can pay in tab fees a year from $25 to $35.
The second proposal doesn’t include the gas tax increase, so Dayton makes up the difference by getting more money from tab fees, a total of $400 million. Under this plan, there would be a $20 base fee, $35 minimum fee and a 1.63 percent rate increase. But the real way the second proposal raises so much more money over time is slowing down the assumed depreciation rates for the car, keeping registration fees higher for longer.
You can see a breakdown of how the fees would go up under Dayton’s first proposal here and second proposal here. The governor also released a side-by-side of current law and the two plans.
Is the Legislature OK with that?
Not exactly. Senate Democrats included a small license tab fee increase in their last offer to forge a transportation deal, and Republicans offered up a considerably scaled-back version of a tab fee increase in a counter-offer on Tuesday.
Under the House GOP plan, which would raise $100 million per year, a $60,000 brand new vehicle would cost $765 in tab fees, instead of the $760 now. But the car would depreciate at a much slower rate than in current law. For example, a $60,000 car after five years would cost $460 in tab fees now, but it would cost $540 in fees after five years under the House GOP plan. People buying new cars would get hit with the higher fee increases.
“It could work that maybe if you paid $100 this year and you were scheduled to pay $75 next year, maybe you pay $83 next year, so you won’t pay more than you’re currently paying,” Speaker Kurt Daudt said. “I think the highest anybody could see would be about a 25 percent increase in what they pay in tab fees, most people would see $10 or less.”
When was the last time lawmakers changed the tab fees?
The state’s vehicle tab fees usually come up when there’s any major transportation funding debate in St. Paul. In general, they are more palatable to some politicians than raising the gas tax, but others equate them to a tax increase by another name.
Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed an increase in tab fees in lieu of a gas tax in 2003, but it was rejected by legislators. In 2008, lawmakers approved both a gas tax and a tab fee increase as part of a major transportation funding package. Pawlenty originally vetoed the bill, but a DFL-controlled House managed to garner enough Republican votes to override his veto. The 2008 Legislature raised the fees by phasing out the popular $189 and $99 registration caps instituted during Gov. Jesse Ventura’s administration.
Increasing tab fees is generally not popular with the public, but with Republicans pushing hard against the gas tax, Dayton said he didn’t have many other options to find funding. “There’s no free lunch,” he said. “General fund comes from taxpayers, tab fees come from taxpayers, gas tax comes from taxpayers. There’s no one else who is going to pay for improving our transportation system except for all of us.”
When asked if he thought tab fees were the same as a tax increase, Daudt said: “We believe it’s a user fee for roads.”
“But it does put new revenue in the plan, and I think that’s what the governor wanted,” Daudt added. “It wasn’t easy for our caucus to swallow new revenue, but we believe in the spirit of compromise to make sure that we get roads and bridges funded.”
How do Minnesota’s tab fees compare to other states?
Every state requires motor vehicles to be registered with state’s transportation agency, but the method of calculating the amount varies greatly among the states. Maryland, for instance, calculates registration fees by the weight of the vehicle, while other states charge different fees based on if the vehicle is a car or a truck. Other states just have a flat tab fee each year, with Mississippi’s tab price as low as $14 per year and Illinois’s as high as $100 a year. Montana has a similar system to Minnesota, requiring a $217 tab fee for cars under four years old. Those fees steadily go down to $28 a year for cars that are more than 11 years old. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a full breakdown of how other states handle tab fees.
Leaders of all four caucuses hoped to reconvene for negotiations and settle on a deal by Tuesday evening, Daudt said.