The crux of the issue is this: Washington residents should register their cars in this state as a matter of civic duty.
But because there always are some people looking for loopholes to avoid that duty, a new state law is designed to provide a little impetus. Senate Bill 5362 — sponsored by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and signed this year by the governor — went into effect last week to give scofflaws a little leeway.
Residents are required to obtain a driver’s license and register their vehicle in Washington within 30 days of moving to the state. But as a trip through just about any neighborhood in Clark County quickly reveals, many locals ignore that requirement. With registration fees being lower in most states — particularly Oregon — it can be less expensive to give nothing more than a wink and a nod to Washington law.
The penalty for failing to comply can be up to a year in jail and a $1,529 fine — an excessive punishment that does not exactly fit the crime and leads to less than robust enforcement. So the new law sets up a deferral program that allows first-time offenders to receive a citation that will be dismissed if they go to court, pay a $500 fine, obtain a Washington driver’s license and register their vehicle in the state.
“Licensing vehicles in other states to save money is a well-known practice, especially in border counties,” Wilson told The Columbian. But, she noted, that doesn’t sit well with some people: “People are so fed up that it’s the No. 1 concern I’ve heard in our district for a few years now. They’re annoyed because they follow the rules and pay what’s expected, only to see others gaming the system.”
Indeed, frustration from law-abiding citizens might be the biggest driver in the renewed effort. But there also are financial concerns. Wilson said vehicles in Clark County that are registered in Oregon amount to $16 million in lost revenue each year; and a 2017 study found that the city of Vancouver annually misses out on more than $300,000 because of vehicles registered in other states.
The new deferment program might give a gentle nudge for residents to register their cars in Washington. So might a change in Washington law to eliminate a sales-tax exemption for out-of-state residents.
Previously, those with an Oregon driver’s license could avoid paying sales tax in Washington, providing motivation for new residents to hang on to their out-of-state licenses. That exemption has been eliminated.
While some Washington residents up until now have been tempted to avoid the state’s higher vehicle registration fees or take advantage of the sales-tax exemption, the thinking behind that strategy has been misguided.
Taxation systems are complex, and Washington makes up for a lack of income tax by charging more in other areas, including vehicle registration. It is the civic duty of all residents to pay the taxes that have been chosen by elected representatives — or to challenge those taxes at the ballot box. Willfully ignoring the law only eschews your duty as a citizen and invites enmity from neighbors who follow the law.
Ideally, the new deferment for registering vehicles — and the change to the sales-tax exemption — will lead more Clark County residents to obtain license plates issued in this state. It also might make law-enforcement officers more likely to issue citations rather than worry about subjecting citizens to oppressive penalties.
But regardless of the change to the laws or the potential punishment, registering in Washington is simply the right thing to do.