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Clerks Enter Political Fight Over License Plate Replacement Fee

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola speaks at a press conference organized by Senator James Tedisco
Lucas Willard
Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola speaks at a press conference organized by Senator James Tedisco

A coalition of county clerks is lining up behind state lawmakers opposed to a plan to require New York drivers pay to update old license plates.

The political fight over license plates fees continues in New York State.

On Wednesday, Republican State Senator James Tedisco organized a press conference with several county clerks to criticize a plan to require drivers to pay the state’s $25 fee to replace license plates that are at least 10 years old — and another $20 to keep their number.

Tedisco, of Glenville in Schenectady County, characterized an online poll to pick a new license plate design as a stunt.

“You just had a bogus, I have to call it a bogus plan, poll on social media. ‘Pick the best plate!’ That’s not the first question my constituents are asking. The first question that should be on there, ‘Do you want a multi-million dollar plate replacement program when you have some of the highest registration fees in the nation right now?’” said Tedisco.

Tedisco calls the plan a “highway heist.” His office says replacement plates distributed with a $25 fee would raise $70 million over two years, and estimates the plates would only cost taxpayers $2.3 million a year.

Clerks from Columbia, Essex, Herkimer, Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Warren Counties lined up behind Tedisco, along with Republican State Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh of the 112th District.

Frank Merola, the Rensselaer County Clerk, says the plan is an unfair burden on taxpayers.

“We hear it, as clerks, we hear every day it at the window. People come up, they’re frustrated. They’re overtaxed, they’re overburdened, and they’re tired of it,” said Merola.

Merola said currently, anyone who wants to replace a damaged plate can do so free-of-charge at their local DMV. The Republican-controlled Rensselaer County legislature is also proposing a measure opposed to the fees.

The state legislature passed a measure in 2009 that says a license plate fee cannot exceed $25.

For his part, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo says lawmakers have the power to lower the fee, if they choose to come back for a special session. Here he is speaking last week on WAMC’s Roundtable program.

“The legislature comes back, they want to change the cost of a license plate, they can do that. They want to change the cost of a fishing license, they can do that. They want to change the tax code, they can do that. They set the fee 10 years ago. You want to reduce it? I’m all in favor of it. But don’t say, well you said, the governor set a $25 fee,” said Cuomo.

Tedisco argues a special session is not required, and that the governor can reduce the fee on his own.

“I say, Governor, you have the power. Use that power. Not to charge 25 dollars, you say you want to reduce it. Don’t bring us back, use your power. Eliminate it,” said Tedisco.

The Republican senator said he will call his own legislative hearing with lawmakers from both sides opposed to the plan.

Another reason for the change in plate design cited by the governor is that the current design – gold with blue text – would not function with a cashless tolling system, which the state is transitioning to.

“We’re going to electronic tolling, which means if it doesn’t read your plate correctly, you don’t pay the toll,” said Cuomo.

Saratoga County Clerk Craig Hayner said that’s not true – that the state’s license plate readers have no issue reading any plates.

“There’s people that travel through our state all the time from other states. The fact that they say that it’s not readable really doesn’t make any sense,” said Hayner.

Tedisco, along with Assemblywoman Walsh, are in favor of the state suing 3M, the state’s previous license plate vendor, for a faulty product. New York recently ended a four-year contract with 3M amid reports of the printed coating peeling off the plates. 

Here’s Walsh…

“I would love to see our Attorney General, Tish James, bring some type of a lawsuit to try to recoup some of the money from that loss. I don’t think that…the replacement of these plates should be done on the backs of taxpayers,” said Walsh.

State Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder said in a statement that the administration has time to “explore alternatives” with the legislature before the plate replacement program goes into effect in April.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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