Wyoming looking to hike fees, divert highway funds to pay for ~$80M vehicle record system - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Wyoming looking to hike fees, divert highway funds to pay for ~$80M vehicle record system

(File Photo; Trevor T. Trujillo, Oil City News)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Legislature is working to find a way to pay for a new transportation information record system. The estimated cost of the new system keeps ballooning.

The state’s current Revenue Information System (RIS) provides “services to our citizens related to driver licenses, driving records and vehicle registration” and relies on “antiquated” COBOL technology developed in the 1980s, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

The current estimated cost of replacing the system is around $80 million which has ballooned by $10 million since estimates in spring 2020.

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The system is used by law enforcement agencies across the state as well as county clerks and treasurers offices in all 23 counties. WYDOT says that several federal agencies and third-party vendors also contract to use the system.

Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Executive Director Byron Oedekoven told the House Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs Committee during their Tuesday, Feb. 23 meeting that law enforcement relies on the system during traffic stops in order to check vehicle and driver information and history.

“All of those kinds of questions reside on this computer,” Oedekoven said. “It is a very integral piece of the process of traffic enforcement or enforcing laws across the state.”

“This computer has been suspect at best in its longevity and it is a surprise to many that it is still alive and well…One of these days it will crash and I’m not really sure what we will do at that point.”

Wyoming County Commissioners Associations Deputy Director Kelli Little said the WCCA supports House Bill 24 which proposes (in its initial version before amendments) raising Wyoming’s various commercial and noncommercial driver’s license and registration fees, learner’s permit fees and renewal fees by $5 to help pay for the new system.

Little said that counties rely on the system in different ways and that the WCCA appreciates that WYDOT has come up with a proposal to fund replacement.

WCCA Board member and Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox elaborated on the WCCA’s position.

“We do support this bill,” Willox said. “Unfortunately, it has a fee attached to it, but that seems about the only way they we’re going to be able to get this done.”

“This is a can that has been kicked down the road. It is dented, it is beat up, it is rusting.”

Willox noted that the proposed fee increases would be collected at the county level.

Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Director of Public and Governmental Affairs Brett Moline told the House Transportation committee that he recognizes the need to do something about the aging system, but expressed opposition to the fee increase.

Moline said that if the legislation does move forward, he would like to see a four year sunset clause added in so that the added fees would expire. He said a sunset clause would give the legislature added oversight of WYDOT as they move forward with replacing the system.

While the initial language of House Bill 24 proposes $5 fee increases, House Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs Committee Chair Donald Burkhart, Jr (Carbon County) proposed an amendment to the bill during Tuesday’s meeting.

He explained that the amendment would change the fee hikes to $2.50 rather than $5. It would also divert $2 million in severance taxes and $3 million in federal mineral royalties annually that go to WYDOT toward the cost of replacing the system.

The amendment also proposes requiring other agencies that use the system to contribute to the replacement cost based on how much they rely on the system and also “pulls money back from highway funds that currently go to state parks,” Burkhart explained.

The amendment would also allow federal COVID-19 relief money that Wyoming may see if the Congress passes the roughly $1.9 trillion stimulus package to go toward the cost of replacing the system.

“All of this over five years would net out to be somewhere between $50 and $60 million,” Burkhart said.

Finally, the amendment would add a clause to sunset the bill in five years.

Rep Landon Brown (Laramie County) asked whether the amendment would be like “trying to rob Peter to pay Paul” since WYDOT funds for highway repairs would be diverted toward a WYDOT’s project to replace the againg system.

“My answer would be yes,” Burkhart said. He noted that the $3 million in federal mineral royalties that would be diverted each year would amount to $15 million over five years which would otherwise pay for about 15 miles of roads.

“That’s 15 miles of road that will not get repaired,” he said added that the “system is critical enough that we can make that decision if we want.”

Burkhart said that he didn’t see a lot of other options for paying for the new system “without putting the burden entirely on drivers.”

Rep. Jerry Obermueller (Natrona County) said that he preferred sticking with the $5 fee increases rather than diverting other WYDOT funding toward costs to replace the system.

“At some point we have to declare that $5 really isn’t that much money and doesn’t break anybody,” he said. “There is a difference between complaining about fees and not being able to afford the fees and we have to make that distinction at some point.”

“The bill with the $5 increase is very simple. Simple to understand. People can afford it even if they may not like it…We have to pay for this somehow.”

Rep. Clarence Styvar (Laramie County) said that he liked the amendment since it would mean lower fee hikes for drivers in light of the fact that the state raised drivers license and registration fees under legislation passed in 2017.

Brown acknowledged that the legislature passed fee increases in 2017, but noted that was the first time this had been done since 1977.

He said he supported keeping the fee increases at $5 but also diverting severance tax and federal mineral royalties allocated to WYDOT toward the system replacement.

Brown also suggested that the legislature should consider increases fees for thir-party vendors using the Revenue Information System. Burkhart said that those fees should be looked at since they haven’t been adjusted since the 1980s, but not under House Bill 24.

Rep. Marshall Burt (Sweetwater County) said that $5 fee increases might seem small on their own, but that with the legislature looking to increase other fees during the 2021 General Session, people could potentially be looking at $200 in additional costs paid to the state per year.

He added that he thinks vehicle registration fees are already a burden for some: “My current registration fees are already $250 on an almost 20 year vehicle.”

“Everything is going to go up and it is always going to go up on the back of the taxpayers,” Burt said.

He added that an exact cost of replacing the system remains uncertain and that $5 fee increases didn’t make sense “at the time when we don’t have solid numbers on what the system is truly going to cost….Two years ago we went from $60 million to $80 million [anticipated].”

Brown said that while vehicle registrations can cost hundreds of dollars depending on the age of the vehicle, counties collect the majority of those revenues with the state collected $35. He noted that the funds which stay at the local level help pay for schools, roads and other services in counties.

He added that since the system needs to be replaced, it made more sense in his thinking to hike the fees by $5 so the legislature will be less likely to need to raise fees again in a few years.

“The chickens have come home to roost on this and we have to pay our bill,” Brown said.

Obermeuller said the proposed fee increases “are so ridiculously small” that he found the argument that they would be too burdensome for people “so absurd.” He noted that people pay $5 for things like a drink at a bar.

Brown proposed an amendment to Burkhart’s amendment to keep the fee increases at $5 and but keep the proposed WYDOT funding diversions in place. That amdnement failed.

The committee passed Burkhart’s amendment on a vote of 6-3 and passed the bill on a vote of 5-4. That will send the bill back to the House Committee of the Whole with a “do-pass” recommendation where the full body would consider both the amendment and the bill.

With the $5 fee increases under th bill’s initial version, the legislation would generate about $7.23 million in additional revenue for the state each year.

Of the estimated $7.23 million in added revenue per year that would stem from the proposal, about $6.4 million would come from the added registration and pro-rate registration fee hikes and about $830,000 would come from the license fee increases.

The fee increases would take effect July 1, 2021 if House Bill 24 were to become law. The bill is sponsored by the Joint Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs Interim Committee.

The committee’s Tuesday discussion can be viewed online: