Lawmakers reject database fee increase

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 | 9:31 p.m. CDT; updated 8:23 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — In a rebuke of Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration, House members on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a large fee increase charged to businesses obtaining vehicle and driver’s license information from state databases.

A provision reversing the Department of Revenue’s fee increases, which took effect this month, was added to a popular bill intended to protect homeowners from large property tax increases.

The combined bill passed the House 147-6. The Senate passed a different version of the property tax legislation in February. So senators must either accept the House version or try to negotiate a compromise before Friday’s end of the legislative session.

Much of Tuesday’s House debate had nothing to do with the property taxes levied by public schools, cities, counties and various other local jurisdictions.

Instead, it focused on the state fees for vehicle and driver’s records charged to businesses that use the information for insurance purposes or to track vehicle histories and traffic violations. Some of those businesses then compile and resell the information — for example, to used-car buyers wondering if a vehicle has been in a wreck or a flood.

Since 1998, the Revenue Department had sold a single record for $1.25 and charged just a fraction of a penny per record for bulk purchasers.

As of May 1, the department began charging $7 a record with no discount for bulk buyers. The goal is to use the influx of money to pay for a new computer system that stores the records.

Members of a legislative committee chastised Revenue Department officials for the fee increase one week ago. On Friday, three businesses sued in Cole County Circuit Court seeking an order blocking it. On Tuesday, some lawmakers argued the fee increase was so large that it would prevent companies such as CarFax from buying state vehicle records, ultimately hurting car dealers and buyers alike.

“This effectively eliminates the ability of consumers in this state to be able to gain access to department of motor vehicle records in order to find out if they’re buying a damaged vehicle, a flooded vehicle or a stolen vehicle,” said Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City.

Stevenson proposed to cap the bulk-purchase fee at 2 cents per record. But the House ultimately adopted an even more restrictive cap of 0.5 cents per record proposed by Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City.

The effect would be to cap the price for the state’s roughly 4 million driver’s license records at about $20,000, instead of the estimated $28 million set under the department’s new fee policy.

Watching the House debate from the chamber’s side gallery were Blunt’s revenue director, Omar Davis, and his chief of staff, Trish Vincent, who previously directed the Department of Revenue.

Davis said that if the legislative fee cap becomes law, it probably would prevent the department from updating its vehicle and driver’s license databases and combining them into a single system — thus preventing the Missouri State Highway Patrol from accessing both kinds of records through a single computer check.

Davis accused lawmakers of siding with special interests by “fighting so vigorously for the profit margins of out-of-state companies against the security of our citizens’ own information.”

The Revenue Department provisions were added to a bill by Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, that would strengthen requirements to roll back property tax rates in certain circumstances.

According to the Missouri Constitution, if assessed property values rise by more than inflation — excluding new construction and improvements — then local governments are supposed to reduce their maximum allowed tax rate so that the total amount of taxes they collect remains the about same.

But some local governments have avoided rolling back tax rates after assessed property values spiked because they had set their tax rates below the maximum amount approved by voters. Gibbons’ bill would require those tax rate reductions, even if local governments have set their tax rates below the voter-approved ceiling.

The legislation also would require assessors to notify people by June 15 of increases in assessed value for their properties and the corresponding projected increase in their taxes. That provision would start next year for larger counties, but not until 2011 for smaller counties.

House members left out of the bill a Senate provision that would have increased a state income tax break for low-income seniors and the disabled. They also rejected a provision Tuesday that would have allowed seniors and the disabled to defer paying the property taxes on their homes until after they died, moved, sold their homes or refinanced them.

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