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License Plates are Political for the Budget Office

House Bill 217, which passed the House 95-3, is smart government legislation. It changes the requirement for replacing license plates from every 5 years to every 10 years. License plates are strong and durable and can easily last 10 years. The 5 year replacement cycle was arbitrary, according to the Motor Vehicle Division, who endorsed the bill. Now Montanans won’t have to take off perfectly good license plates, spend the time and money to get new ones, and then put on new plates. The cherry on top is that this will save the taxpayer almost $3 million in fees over the next two years.

Sounds win-win, right? The Governor’s budget team does not think so. Evidently money is so tight, they need the $294,000 in revenue from license plate fees to make ends meet. They oppose this bill.

This is worth repeating because it’s an outrageous example of the state that our budget is in and the lengths the Governor’s office will go to save face. This wildly popular and bipartisan bill will save Montana citizens over $1.5 million annually and is endorsed by the Motor Vehicle Department. Yet it is being opposed by the Budget Office because, per their public testimony, the state will lose out on taxpayer fees and it will unbalance the budget. 

Here’s the breakdown: the state charges you $10 to replace perfectly good plates. Of that $10, $8 goes to material and labor and $2 dollars goes to the General Fund as money to the Government for their operational budget. Multiply that $2 by approximately 147,000 citizens that get new plates annually and you have $294,000 in fees. The Governor knows that we’re in a budget crisis and is looking everywhere to make up for the new spending he’s asking the legislature to approve.

This problem is not about license plates. It’s about the viewpoint of our state’s budget office. They consider it problematic if they lose funds ($294,000), regardless if it is convenient and less costly to the citizen ($1.5 million in savings). Putting Government income needs ahead of the taxpayer is their priority, it seems.

A troubling question arises: where else in the $10B budget do we put the needs of the government budget ahead of the citizen?

This deeply rooted mindset, one where the want to grow government trumps the individual, is completely backward, not to mention harmful. Government and its budget is a tool to serve the people, not the inverse. Montanas are not here to serve Government revenue needs.

It has become crystal clear to both Republican and Democrat legislators that politics has infested the budget. Actions like this put fees and big bureaucratic growth ahead of the convenience and cash of the Montana citizen.

Why this matters is that it is a harbinger of our budget mismanagement. We’ve lost $458 million in the ending fund balance since Governor Bullock came into office. Remember it was a healthy $537M in FY 2013 and is now forecast to be down to just $79M for FY 2017. We need $200M to be structurally solvent and pay our bills.

As we look at our crippling loses we are reminded that government expenditures went up 19% since 2013 but taxes collected has only grown 6%. Put another way, we’ve spent three times the amount we’ve taken in over that period.

This session Montanans are looking for leadership across the aisle and between the executive and legislature branch. We must work together, as one Montana, to empower our citizens, not to arbitrarily grow government.


Jon Knokey represents Bozeman. He has a Master in Public Administration from Harvard and Masters in Business Administration from Dartmouth. He graduated from Montana State with a B.S. in Business. He played quarterback for the Bobcats.


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