Gov. Cuomo this week disclosed that the state Department of Motor Vehicles will be collecting an extra fee from millions of New Yorkers who will have to renew their existing car and truck registrations, starting next spring.
This was not how he put it, though.
Instead, the governor’s office issued a press release inviting New York residents to vote on one of five proposed designs for a whole new generation of license plates.
It’s a matter of personal taste, obviously, but many New Yorkers may find themselves less than impressed by the choices.
Four of the options are cluttered with crude drawings or mismatched fonts that might have been lifted from a kidnapper’s ransom note. The cleanest and simplest plate design features the new Tappan Zee bridge — not exactly the most iconic Empire State image, but undeniably the biggest thing ever to have been built by one Cuomo and named after another.
The real news was buried lower in the press release: While Albany has been collecting a onetime $25 “Empire Gold” plate fee for all new vehicles registered since 2009, the next generation of license plates will be a mandatory one-time $25 purchase for all biannual registration renewals. This will come on top of the standard biannual registration fee, which typically ranges from $120 to $170 for cars in the city and its suburban counties.
The first New York motorists to pay the added charge will be those seeking renewals on some 3 million vehicles with plates at least 10 years old, which will equate to a $75 million gross haul for Albany in the next two years.
In the context of a $102 billion state operating funds budget, this is small change. But like the extra service charges now tacked on to everything from baseball tickets to airline baggage checks, it smacks of nickel-and-diming.
It also adds to the burden on motorists who — on top of insurance, tolls and maintenance — pay the nation’s fifth highest gas taxes, even as pavement conditions continue to deteriorate.
According to the governor’s press release, New York’s current generation of license plates needs replacing because many are “damaged, oxidized and peeling.” This can thwart the plate-reading technology that the state increasingly (and literally) banks on to back up cashless-tolling systems, including Cuomo’s newly approved congestion-pricing scheme for Manhattan.
That sounds plausible enough. But why the fee? Questioned by reporters at a State Fair appearance Wednesday, Cuomo noted the $25 fee “was established in law [in] 2009.”
He didn’t mention that it was initiated by then-Gov. David Paterson as a revenue raiser in a fiscal crisis — or that, under criticism from county clerks and Republican state legislators, Paterson had to back off from his own original plan to impose the fee on renewals as well as new registrations.
Cuomo asserted that anything less than the full amount would require non-drivers to subsidize license plates. “It’s your license plate, you should pay the cost of the license plate,” he said.
OK, but . . . $25? New York license plates are manufactured by Auburn state prison inmates who at last report made about $1 an hour, stamping aluminum sheets with adhesive coatings supplied by a California company that will be paid about $4 million over the next two years. At those rates, even in the Empire State, it’s hard to see how the mass-production of millions of license plates could work out to $25 a pair.
In fact, the 2009 law specifically authorizes a fee “not to exceed” $25. This means the governor has the discretion to charge only the true cost of making plates, whatever it is.
Critics, and not only Republicans, assail Cuomo’s license-plate plan as an unfair revenue grab by various lawmakers. Sen. David Carlucci and Sen. James Skoufis, Democrats from Rockland County, also denounced it.
It would be easy enough for the governor to shut up the critics. Cuomo could pledge to use any excess new-plate fee revenue to improve highway conditions.
Or he could simply use his discretion to reduce the fee to reflect the real costs of the plates. While he’s at it, he might also cancel the contest and send DMV’s lame license-plate designers back to the drawing board.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
E.J. McMahon is research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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