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Paying for streets

Matt Pommer

There’s an alternative to using the property tax to pay for municipal street   and county road repairs.


Local governments get some help from the state, but a large chunk of the money   for repairs and for plowing snow comes from the property tax. The alternative   method of funding would be imposing local registration fees on vehicles.


State law allows both counties and municipal governments to impose additional   registration fees on cars and trucks up to 8,000 pounds in weight. The local   governing board votes for the registration fee and the state Department of Transportation   collects when owners send the money in for their annual vehicle registration.


State law allows any size of flat uniform local registration fee, demanding   only that the money collected be used for transportation purposes. Local governments   spend lots of money on transportation, ranging from police enforcing speed and   other laws to snow removal to patching and improving local streets and roads.


Government experts will note the registration fee idea isn’t progressive. An   owner of a ’95 Ford would pay the same as the owner of a 2003 BMW. Former Gov.   Patrick Lucey once floated the idea of basing the state registration fee on   the value of the vehicle, but it died a swift death in the Legislature. The   auto industry denounced the concept, obviously seeing it as a disincentive to   buying new cars.


A help to seniors


But using the fee rather than property taxes would help senior citizens who   no longer drive but use bus service or rides from friends and senior citizen   help groups to get around. Critics say the property tax is driving senior citizens   out of their home. Shifting the financing of street repairs would provide some   help.


There are several good things to say about local registration fees. There would   be few deadbeats. People send in their registration fees rather than being stopped   by police and the state patrol. For local politicians, there is no maximum amount   for the fee, and both county and local governments can impose their own fees.  


State government collects the fee so people can vent their anger at the notice   from the Department of Transportation. Those in society who are busy denouncing   government spending seldom suggest not plowing the snow or not fixing potholes   as a way to reduce spending.


Perhaps most important, this is a “fee” not a “tax.” The   state government has imposed sharply higher tuition at the university, and there   has been only muted criticism of that move. People seem to accept fees better   than a tax. Saying anything nice about a tax is likely whispering about sex   at a church supper.


Matt Pommer is the dean of correspondents covering the state Capitol.


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