Money for Roads & No Money For The Courts….

Posted on September 4, 2015

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Yesterday Jerry Brown proposed a substantial tax increase to fund our crumbling roads and highway infrastructure. His proposal would charge another $65.00 per year on vehicle registrations as a highway user fee which would generate 2 billion dollars. It would also raise another billion by taxes on gasoline of six cents and diesel by eleven cents. While we’re generally supportive of the infrastructure investment we believe a few critical parts are missing.

First, when it comes to road usage, it is heavy eighteen wheelers and other gross vehicle weight rated heavy vehicles that cause the greatest rate of road deterioration.

Second, there is no money in this plan to fund the courts. We have a problem with that because it is highways and roads that generate all of the court traffic. If we are ever to escape the label of “Not Just In Ferguson” then we must consider bold alternatives to racking up billions of dollars in fees and fines that no one can afford to pay. This starts with a stable court funding model that should be based on something relatively stable and tangible like gasoline/diesel taxes, vehicle registrations or drivers (and other professional) licensing fees.

In our new Amazon shopping culture where nearly anything can arrive within two days including many of your groceries, the number of gross vehicle weight rated heavy vehicles is on the increase. Sure, this may be barely reflected upon in additional diesel taxes but the bad part about this catch-all is that diesel cars like the Volkswagen TDI lineup and the Chevy Cruze and Dodge EcoDiesel trucks get some of the best mileage available and we don’t want to make owning high mileage diesel cars a disincentive.

If anything, we want to provide incentives to owning these kinds of high mileage vehicles.  So the target should be adjusted a bit towards GVWR vehicles one ton and over and it should be in the form of even higher road use fees of $200.00 (a dollar a working day) for commercial vehicles one ton and over. Additionally, diesel taxes should be raised to 15 cents per gallon for commercial vehicles while personally owned diesel vehicles under one ton GVWR pay the gasoline tax as is done in many other states.

Equally, there should be no additional fee whatsoever for electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.

With respect to properly funding our courts, increasing the proposed highway fee of $65.00 to $100.00 and giving the courts a hundred dollars of our proposed GVWR fees while eliminating many of the onerous assessments on citations retroactively would kill three birds with one stone:

First, it would assist in discarding the “Not Just In Ferguson” label by lowering all fines and assessments to what people could actually afford.

Second, it would provide a stable source of revenue for the courts and we could actually afford to reopen many of them.

Third, it would reduce all lines outside every courthouse. When people can afford their fines, they’re substantially less apt to appear, which is why many of the most affluent communities have no lines at the court traffic window.  So in essence, these changes would assist in right-sizing the courts, court finances, uncollected fines and fees and docket loads.

As far as the various assessments go, many of them should also move from a conviction funded model to a user fee funded model that is also assessed against vehicles, drivers and other professional licenses or taxes with the objective of eliminating nearly all of them.

Unless the courts are willing to heavily lobby the other two branches to take take bold steps to change their funding model as well as the onerous assessments, they will continue to wither at the vine of being understaffed, overworked and under funded while holding the blame card for an ever-increasing amount of noncollectable fees and fines that’s really not their fault.

When the door is opened on changes in funding models, the judicial branch needs to be somewhere near the top of the list and there is no better time than now.