PHOENIX — More than 166,000 Arizona motorists who are now renewing their vehicle registrations are being hit up for a $32 fee the agency may not legally be entitled to collect.
Four years ago, state lawmakers authorized the Department of Transportation to levy a "public safety fee'' on every vehicle at the time of registration. The new fee — the size of which was left to ADOT officials for political reasons — was designed to have motorists pick up more of the cost of the state Highway Patrol.
Amid public outcry, the legislature voted in 2019 to scrap the fee. But with Gov. Doug Ducey having built his budget on it, they agreed to allow it to continue through the current fiscal year.
That's June 30.
But here's the thing.
ADOT is demanding that motorists whose registrations are good only through June 30 also pay that fee, even though the funds collected will be for renewed registrations that begin July 1. Spokesman Doug Pacey said his agency reads the statute as allowing for that.
That decision angered Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who led the fight to repeal the fee and came up with the language about exactly when it would finally expire. She told Capitol Media Services that assessing the fee on registrations that take effect in the new fiscal year was never her intent.
"I went through this thousands of times to make sure this was crystal clear,'' she said. "I cannot even believe that's their interpretation.''
More to the point, Ugenti-Rita said that, with the state now flush with cash, there's no reason for ADOT to take another more than $5.3 million out of the pockets of the 166,793 vehicle owners who are now renewing their registrations that expire at the end of this month.
The fee was a method of raising more money, at least indirectly, for road construction and repair.
Those projects are supposed to be funded by gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees. But lawmakers, in prior efforts to balance the budget, siphoned off some of what was raised to finance the Highway Patrol.
So Noel Campbell, then a Republican state representative, came up with a plan: finance the Highway Patrol with a separate "public safety fee'' — with the amount determined by ADOT — added to other registration costs. That, in turn, freed up the existing revenues for roads.
But the $32 price tag ADOT put on it resulted in an outcry, not only from residents who saw it as a hidden tax hike but from lawmakers who were told it would not be anywhere near that much.
Ugenti-Rita pushed to rescind it immediately. But with Ducey's budget dependent on the revenues, she had to settle for a delayed repeal.
The way she sees it, anyone with a renewal before June 30, the end of the fiscal year, would be obligated to pay the fee. But anyone whose registration is good through the end of the month was exempt.
"You've already paid through the 30th,'' Ugenti-Rita said.
And she was not pleased when she learned that ADOT was collecting it for the registrations that were effective July 1.
"It's like dealing with a snake-oil salesman,'' she said of dealing with not just ADOT but other state agencies.
"There's no support for their very advantageous interpretation.''
Nor is Ugenti-Rita willing to simply let the issue slide.
"It's a ton of money,'' she said, both from the individual perspective of the Arizonans who she said were improperly charged the $32 as well as the cash that's going into state coffers.
What's next, Ugenti-Rita said, will be a call to ADOT to see if she can get the problem fixed.
If she does, that could put the agency in a difficult position as it already has started billing — and collecting — for the new registrations for the period that begins July 1.