July 19, 2011

Change in Texas vehicle registration fees is good news -- for some

Many pickups and older-model cars will have higher fees after a 2009 overhaul.

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Many Texas automobile owners are getting a surprise in the mail, and for some it will mean fewer dollars in their pockets. For others, it will mean more.

In 2009, the Legislature overhauled its vehicle registration fees but delayed implementing the changes until Sept. 1, 2011. Well, that time is here.

Renewals for registration stickers expiring at the end of August are already being mailed out, and they reflect the new fees. Many car owners who open their envelopes from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles -- including those with newer-model cars -- will be pleasantly surprised to notice a lower fee. But for others, including owners of many pickups and older-model cars, the fees will be higher.

"I'll just have to grin and bear it," said Shane Szarek of North Richland Hills. The annual fee for his 2003 Dodge Neon increased to $52.75 from $40.80 in previous years, according to the new pricing schedule. Including a $10 local charge and a $1 mailing fee, his annual cost is climbing from $51.80 to $63.75.

The $52.75 includes the state's new base fee of $50.75 for most automobiles, plus $2 in mandatory statewide fees that aren't itemized because there wasn't room on the bill, a motor vehicles department spokeswoman said. The $2 in fees includes $1 for automation of the registration system and $1 for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Perhaps like many other residents, Szarek said he wasn't aware of the impending fee increases, but he doesn't feel that there's much he can do about it.

"No, I won't be buying another car," he said. "This one is paid off and will be mine until the wheels fall off. Adding a car payment into the mix would just be too much."

Why the change?

More than two years ago, lawmakers set out to simplify a notoriously complicated system of determining what Texans should pay each year in vehicle registration fees, which are used to help fund highways and other state needs.

Traditionally, owners of newer cars paid $58.80 a year, plus fees including charges that vary by county ($10 in Tarrant County). But owners of pickups typically paid less -- $54 a year on average -- because the pickup fee was based on vehicle weight.

For example, the owner of a 2009 Toyota Tacoma, a midsize pickup with a gross weight of 4,600 pounds, would pay $45.54 plus other fees. Meanwhile, the owner of a full-size pickup, such as a 2011 Chevrolet Silverado with a gross weight of 6,400 pounds, would pay $58.98.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2009 that eliminated many of the weight-based fee categories and changed the fee to a flat $50.75 for most cars and pickups with a gross weight of 6,000 pounds or less (not including the $2 in statewide fees). Heavier vehicles, like a utility or recreational vehicle, would still pay higher fees of $54 to $840, depending on their weight class.

The change is meant to be revenue-neutral, meaning the motor vehicles department shouldn't get extra money out of it, spokeswoman Kim Sue Lia Perkes said. In fact, some department officials have expressed concern that the change could lead to a shortfall.

"This is not a way for the state to make more money, but a way for the state to make the fees more logical, easier to remember," she said. "Some [vehicle owners] will save a couple of dollars and some will spend a few more."

In all, at least 79 trailer, vehicle and truck fees have been consolidated into three categories, and more than 600 weight-based fees were combined into just seven, she said.

"It really is going to make it simple in a way that benefits consumers, vehicle-related businesses, tax offices and the state," she said.

Why now?

Lawmakers who negotiated the 2009 fee overhaul don't have a firm answer for why the law was written so that the fees would be implemented more than two years later. The fees were approved late in the session, when some bills were furiously passing and others were dying as elected leaders fought to meet the adjournment deadline.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a former House Transportation Committee chairman, had hoped the two-year delay would give lawmakers a chance to take a fresh look at the fees in early 2011 -- and possibly change them again, before they ever reached residents' mailboxes.

But efforts to tweak the fees during the 2011 regular session, which ended last month, were unsuccessful.

Pickett added that he favors raising the fee to a flat $58.80 for most vehicle owners, which he said would have generated at least an extra $380 million for the state.

Texans likely will have a mixed reaction to the new fees, Pickett said.

"The majority of registrations are for vehicles that are over 6 years old, so for a lot of people it will go up," Pickett said. "But if you have a new car, it was $58.80 and now it will be about $50."

Pickett also said that while some pickup owners will pay more, others will get a break.

"So I think people will be OK," he said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

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