Politics & Government

July 31, 2014

NC drivers will have new freedom of choice in ‘first’ license plates

The new state budget offers “First in Freedom” options on license plates. It also spells an end to state funding for driver education classes, and an end to the quiet practice of shifting transportation revenues to help pay salaries in Gov. Pat McCrory’s office.

First in Flight, or First in Freedom? When car owners get new license plates for their cars, they’ll have new freedom to choose how they boast about North Carolina.

The new state budget rolled out in the General Assembly Wednesday night introduces the license plate option.

The budget also includes these additional transportation provisions. It:

• Incorporates a Senate push to end state funding – now $26 million a year in transportation funds – for driver education classes offered in public schools, starting in July 2015. Students can be asked to pay as much as $65 for the class this year, and that fee is expected to rise after state funding ends next year.
• Halts the yearly transfer of $267,000 in transportation funds to help pay salaries of six staffers in Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, starting in July 2015.
• Establishes detailed new regulations to limit the use of drones – unmanned aircraft.
• Authorizes the governor to purchase or condemn federal land in Dare County to create an Oregon Inlet State Park, incorporating a Senate bill aimed at building jetties to help stabilize the inlet’s navigation channel.
• Repeals a $185,121 tax break for taxi operators – a refund of the state gas tax – starting in July 2015.
• Hires 14 more driver license examiners to reduce wait times at busy Division of Motor Vehicles offices, and authorizes more DMV funds to produce a new-format driver’s license and to start allowing some drivers to renew their driver’s licenses online.
• Keeps state ferry tolls unchanged – now collected on three routes, with options to start charging tolls in the future on the other four routes. The House had proposed getting rid of all ferry tolls.
• Keeps highway use taxes on vehicle sales unchanged. The Senate had proposed to increase the cap on taxes that can be charged for commercial vehicles, recreational vehicles, and on vehicles transferred to North Carolina from other states.
• Establishes new DOT pavement preservation and highway maintenance improvement programs, including detailed specifications and guidelines for pavement treatments.

It was the Senate budget, released in May, that revealed previously unreported transfers of more than $267,000 in state gas tax and other transportation funds to help cover the governor’s payroll.

The legislature’s fiscal researchers said this transfer had never been made or reported before. But DOT later released records showing that former Gov. Bev Perdue had begun the practice of dunning DOT for salary money. McCrory enlarged the list of staffers paid with transportation money.

DOT money pays the full salaries of Jonathan Harris, McCrory’s assistant legal counsel, and a vacant communications specialist position. And DOT funds pay about 35 percent of the salaries for Ryan Tronovitch, deputy communications director; Dion Terry, policy analyst; Phillip Christofferson, boards and commissions specialist; and former state Rep. Fred Steen, the governor’s chief lobbyist.

The new budget says these payments must end after the current fiscal year, which ends next June 30. Then the governor will have to find a new way to pay these employees – or let them go. The new budget says also that a DOT position, federal legislative programs coordinator, will be eliminated after this year.

A “First in Flight” plate has been the state standard for 32 years, harking back to the Wright Brothers’ accomplishment at Kill Devil Hills. “First in Freedom” was the slogan embossed on our license plates from 1975 to 1979. It referred to the state’s proud history in the American Revolution, but it generated controversy among North Carolinians who disavowed the message.

Bringing it back this year was a state House idea. The budget adopted by the House in June said this new license plate would include an image referring to the Mecklenburg Declaration of 1775 – an independence declaration also referenced on the official state seal with the date May 20, 1775.

But the budget released this week spreads the historic honors around by adding that the ultimate license plate can refer either to the Mecklenburg event or to the Halifax Resolves (also memorialized on the state seal with the date April 12, 1776).

The new freedom starts in July 2015.

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