BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — In the final hours of the legislative session, lawmakers passed a $53 million fee hike on drivers who don't maintain car insurance as required by law.
Most of the money expected to be raised is slated to go to boost the salaries of state police troopers. Other beneficiaries of the fee hike include local sheriffs and district attorneys.
The measure by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, raises fees for the reinstatement of driving privileges if a driver has been caught without insurance, boosts penalties for not carrying proof of insurance in a vehicle and requires a minimum $75 fine for someone caught in violation of the law requiring insurance on top of the other fines and penalties.
Supporters say the bill makes it more expensive for drivers to not have insurance than to get a basic liability policy.
"The intent of the bill was to try to discourage people from operating in an uninsured capacity," said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, one of six lawmakers who developed the final version of the measure.
Critics say it will hit people who already can't afford Louisiana's high car insurance costs. They note the hefty fines were decided in a last-minute deal on Monday, the last day of the session.
"This is a $53 million tax that will fall mainly on the poor, and it was conceived in the worst possible way, behind closed doors without public debate in the last few hours of a legislative session," said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, which advocates for low- and moderate-income families.
The bill awaits a decision from Gov. Bobby Jindal. The governor's office didn't respond Friday to a question about whether he'll agree to the fee hikes, slated to take effect July 1.
Col. Mike Edmonson, head of the Louisiana State Police, said drivers in the state pay higher insurance premiums because so many people drive without insurance.
"Until you affect somebody in the pocketbook, they don't seem to do things," he said.
The first slice of money from the fee hike, estimated to be about $2 million, will pay for an insurance verification system that police officers can use to check insurance on the spot.
The next $42 million will go to increase the pay scale for troopers.
Edmonson said the pay grid hasn't been adjusted in 12 years, and he cited an LSU-Shreveport study that shows 10 other state and local law enforcement agencies offer higher starting salaries for officers than the state police.
In his latest cadet class, Edmonson said: "They got their first paychecks, and I had five people leave and went to other police agencies" because of the $35,609 starting salary.
"I only want to be on an even field with everyone else," he said.
Under the pay increase that Edmonson plans to phase in, an entry level trooper's salary will grow to $46,610 with benefits.
Starting in the 2015-16 budget year, after the annual allocation to state police, sheriffs will get $7 million from the fee hike to reimburse them for housing people who are arrested for parole violations and awaiting a parole revocation hearing. The next $1 million will go to help district attorneys hire new assistant DAs.
House Bill 872 can be found at www.legis.la.gov