Tuesday, March 2, 2010

RMV fee controversy is everyone's fault

Whenever a politician on Beacon Hill says that they didn't know about a fee hike like the Registry of Motor Vehicles' five-dollar charge to do business in person, the siren on my BS detector wails like a fleet of engines headed to a five-alarm blaze. The fact is, the state legislature is so powerful that a selectman in Montague needs to have a home-rule petition passed in order to sneeze at town meeting. So there is nothing more disingenuous than this:
Outraged state senators on both sides of the aisle today will push to overturn a “brutal” Registry of Motor Vehicles fee slapped on drivers who conduct some business in person instead of online after a Herald report revealed the cost hike.

“It doesn’t seem quite fair,” said Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth). “I assume the members might (vote to eliminate the $5 fee). We didn’t even know it had happened until we read it (in the Herald)...”

“I think the element of surprise is what angered people, and rightly so. I’m angry as well,” [Rep. Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee)] said. “Given the way this has been packaged, I would take a serious look at supporting a rollback.”

Oh, I have no doubt that Senator Murray, Representative Wagner, and others in the legislature didn't know it was coming. But there is a big difference between not knowing something is happening and not being told that it is going to happen. The legislature was told that this increase was coming. It's their own fault if they didn't pay attention.

State law is clear that the Secretary of Administration and Finance must inform the legislature at least 60 days before raising fees and hold a public hearing at least 30 days before raising fees. In the case of this particular fee, it appears that the notice was given more than one year in advance.

According to the Senate Journal of December 15, 2008, "A communication from the Executive Office for Administration and Finance (pursuant to Section 3B of Chapter 7 of the General Laws) giving notice of its intention to amend 801 CMR 4.02: Fees for Licenses, Permits, and Services to be Charged to State Agencies (received Thursday, December 11, 2008),— was placed on file."

On January 6, 2009, the House Journal reports that a communication "From the Executive Office for Administration and Finance (under the provisions of Section 3B Chapter 7 of the General Laws) submitting proposed amendments to 801 CMR 4.02 and 801 CMR 4.08" was "placed on file."

On February 17, 2009, the RMV announced a public hearing would be held March 16 to consider the proposed fee changes. The announcement included a link to the fee changes themselves. The $5.00 "Branch Transaction Administrative Fee" is clearly marked as a change.

The current list of fees posted at the Executive Office for Administration and Finance was amended on January 22, 2010 to include the new fee (see page 42).

The Senate was told, the House was told, a public hearing was held, no one raised a stink, so the revenue projections for the FY2010 budget were made including revenue from this fee. The House and Senate pass the budget, Governor Patrick signs it, and everyone is happy until the fee kicks in, consumers get outraged, and legislators pretend that if they had actually been informed of this despicable fee they would have stopped it.

Again, baloney.

But while legislators have no reason to be outraged, consumers do. The RMV absolutely misled consumers about this change, despite their protestations to the contrary. Back to the Herald:

The RMV has done little to raise awareness of the fee. It was mentioned on an obscure RMV blog posting on Saturday. An internal memo obtained by the Herald says there will not be a promotion of the fee.

“Customer advertising . . . will not include the administrative fee separately, but rather the stated renewal or duplicate fee will be listed as $5 greater,” wrote RMV officials in the memo.
Looking through the RMV's archives, it is clear that they had no intention of letting people know of the increase. There are a number of official releases that specifically promote online usage. While those would seem to be the perfect place to remind customers that using online services would save money because fees will rise in 2010, none mention the increase. In fact, the official fee schedule "revised February 2010" does not even list the fee, even though it was to go into effect March 1.

Obviously, they were trying to hide it. They had an entire year to tell everyone that they had better go online or they were going to be charged a fee. It should have been in every press release about web services, posted on the web site, noted in every mailing, and advertised prominently in each branch. Why didn't they?

Well, I think we all know the reason. The RMV has to balance out the savings they get from having people use the web with the fees they would generate by charging everyone who comes into the branches. Apparently there is more to gain by collecting the fees than there is by saving money through on-line transactions.

Well, today the governor responded by rescinding the fees. It was probably the best thing he could do given the situation. This isn't a bad fee. We should be encouraging our state agencies to be more efficient, and one of the ways to do that is to move people to online transactions.

We should also encourage our legislators to read the communications from the executive secretaries so they know what government is doing. That's why the communications are required. And we should encourage the RMV to be honest with consumers, and worry more about customer service than raising money.
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