Perhaps the least discussed measure set to appear on North Dakota’s ballots for the November 6th general election is Measure 4. Those who advocate for its passage often refer to it as the “Emergency Volunteer License Plate Initiative“. As you can see, there’s a Facebook page for it, but it’s not exactly filled with content or followed by a large number of people. Back in April, a video was posted on YouTube with the intention of recruiting people to circulate petitions. It has 82 views. Yet, there were enough grassroots volunteers to get the necessary signatures for ballot access.
According to its petition title, Measure 4 proposes:
“… a new section to chapter 39-04 of the North Dakota Century Code requiring the Department of Transportation to issue red personalized vehicle plates to volunteer emergency responders. The plates would be provided at no cost to the volunteers and would serve as an entrance pass to all North Dakota state parks. Qualifications and verification procedures for the plates would be designated by the Department of Transportation in cooperation with the volunteer organizations.” (Emphasis Added)
Take it for what it’s worth, but it’s reported that the free license plates will cost taxpayers an estimated $3.5 million every biennium. The loss in revenue for the Parks and Recreation Department is projected to be $3.9 million. The total loss to the Highway Tax Distribution Fund over the course of 10 years is estimated to be $13.9 million.
I should point out that back in August we published an article explaining the fact that the Department of Transportation is already facing revenue shortfalls— which has led to a discussion about increasing fees. That discussion has come as part of the interim Government Finance Committee being tasked with studying the funding mechanisms of the “Department of Transportation, political subdivisions, and public transportation providers, for road construction, maintenance, other transportation infrastructure needs, and transit services”.
At a symposium on transportation funding earlier this year, Scott Zainhofsky — who is Planning/Asset Management Division Director with the North Dakota Department of Transportation — expressed that the department is currently on “preservation mode” and has “stretched every dollar as far as it can”. To buttress his case that they’re about as efficient as they can get, he pointed to the fact that the Reason Foundation named the North Dakota Department of Transportation tops in the nation for performance and cost-effectiveness.
While the economic aspect to this issue is certainly worth considering, I also think it’s important to point out that passage of this measure causes one segment of the public to be treated differently than the rest. In actuality, it’s a feel-good measure. And while I’m grateful for our emergency responders — volunteer or otherwise — I just don’t think it’s the proper role of government to grant special favors, in the name of gratitude, with other people’s money (i.e. tax dollars).
If there’s an appetite for providing funding to these volunteers, then let’s do it through non-profits. We need not do it through force via the initiative process.
It is for these reasons that I will be voting “No” on Measure 4. I hope you will do the same.