Car-license scofflaw team may be revived
House unanimously backs Moeller bill to fund state patrol effort
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
A bill to crack down — again — on vehicle license scofflaws is building momentum in Olympia.
Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, wants to put a bigger dent in the perennial problem of Clark County residents who try to get around Washington’s taxes and vehicle license fees by registering their cars and trucks in Oregon.
On Friday, the House voted unanimously in favor of Moeller’s House Bill 2436, which would do just that. Rep. Jim Jacks, D-Vancouver, was among six co-sponsors.
The bill would reinstate a successful program that lost funding last year — and give it a stable source of funding this time.
It’s no secret to Clark County residents that thousands of their neighbors drive cars with Oregon plates. The state estimates this end-run around Washington law deprives state coffers of close to $2 million in revenue annually.
The Legislature made a run at solving the problem in 2007, appropriating $250,000 for the Vehicle License Fraud Program, which aimed to identify scofflaws and make them pay.
The program funded two Washington State Patrol officers, an auditor with the Department of Revenue and a crew of 10 to 12 volunteers. The team checked property ownership, voter registration, school attendance and public utility records to find drivers with Oregon plates who actually lived in Clark County.
They mailed more than 4,500 postcards seeking voluntary compliance and compiled a database of 53,000 vehicles with suspicious out-of-state plates. Their tactics, including ticketing residents for failing to register a car with out-of-state plates within 30 days of moving to Washington, persuaded the owners of 1,755 vehicles to get legal in 2008 alone. About 40 percent of residents contacted complied by properly registering their vehicles and paying the licensing fee and appropriate taxes.
The program brought in $647,000 in fees in 2008. Failure to license a vehicle within 30 days carries a $529 fine.
But nearly all the revenue raised went into the state general fund. And in 2009, the program became a casualty of the state budget crisis and was discontinued.
Washington State Patrol Trooper Steve Schatzel, who oversaw the volunteer crew, says the enforcement effort has suffered since but has not gone away.
“Even though we don’t have the funding and we don’t have the volunteers, that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing anything about it,” he said. “We do normal traffic stops and write tickets.”
Michelle Southmayd, who lives in Vancouver’s Bagley Downs neighborhood, is one of several readers who contacted The Columbian about the problem of car-licensing scofflaws after reading that lawmakers in Olympia are considering taxes on candy and bottled water.
“To me that’s ridiculous when they can get all these people living in Clark County who have Oregon plates,” she said. “They’re living right here on our local neighborhood streets. There are cars here in my apartment complex with Oregon plates. Why not do something to them? We’re losing big bucks there.”
Moeller, a member of the House Transportation Committee, agrees.
House Bill 2436 “seeks to end the opportunity for tax cheats to enjoy all the public services of Washington — such as education for their kids and protection for their home and property — without paying the taxes that support these services and make them possible,” he said in a statement.
Moeller noted that some Washington residents register their vehicles in Washington but keep their out-of-state driver’s licenses to avoid paying the tax due when they buy the car. To prevent that, Moeller’s bill would require that the owner of a vehicle licensed in Washington must have a Washington driver’s license.
Under HB 2436, fines and fees generated by the license cheats enforcement team would be deposited in a fund dedicated to re-establishing the Vehicle License Fraud Program.
Because the cost of the program is estimated at approximately $325,000 per year, Moeller said, “the program can actually more than pay for itself.”
The measure now heads to the state Senate.
Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; email@example.com.