- The Maine Wire - https://www.themainewire.com -

Why are Maine lawmakers letting special interests nickel-and-dime us on vehicle inspections?

Mandatory motor vehicle inspections already cost Mainers $14 million and countless hours of wasted time every single year, but just the other day, a majority of the Maine House voted to double the fee charged per vehicle inspection fee from $12.50 to $25. 

It’s hard to believe that in the midst of 40-year high inflation seen across the economy in food, housing, and especially energy prices, Maine lawmakers would opt to further nickel-and-dime their constituents. Sadly, they have.

On March 24, LD 2032, “An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Motor Vehicle Inspection Working Group,” was printed by the Revisor’s Office and submitted to the legislature. On the same day, the bill appeared on both the House and Senate calendars, and was adopted on engrossment “under the hammer,” or through a simple voice-vote. Engrossment is the step in the legislative process before the final enactment vote, which would send a bill to the governor’s desk. Due to the timing of the bill’s release and adoption, nearly every legislator outside of the Transportation Committee who cast a vote to engross LD 2032 last Thursday likely did not know what they were voting on.

Because the bill came out of a working group of the Transportation Committee to examine studying the inspection program, the bill did not receive its own public hearing. Having been voted out as a committee bill during a work session on March 8, it was able to go directly to the floor without an opportunity for Maine people to weigh in on its merits. 

In the end, the working group recommended statutory language to double the inspection sticker fee, from $12.50 to $25. It also would allow Maine State Police to develop a program that “uses electronically generated data as part of an inspection and permits the creation and exchange of an electronic record for maintaining inspection information.”

The Motor Vehicle Inspection Working Group was set up through the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Transportation, coming into being after Rep. Rich Cebra’s bill to make inspections every other year, instead of annually, was amended to a commission to study inspection programs. That bill’s path ended in committee last session, but the energy behind that idea led to the creation of this working group to look at Maine’s vehicle inspection program.

Unfortunately for everyday Maine drivers and taxpayers, the working group recommended raising—rather than reducing—the burden of the inspection program. This is no surprise when digging into its final report, presented to the Transportation Committee on January 18, 2022.

First off, the idea that the composition of the working group was balanced and unbiased is a farce. It was composed of ten total participants: two legislators, Rep. Bruce White of Waterville and Rep. Michael Perkins of Oakland (who owns a business that performs inspections), four state employees who oversee the inspections program, either with the Maine State Police or the Department of Public Safety, two representatives of automobile industry groups, and two owners of car mechanic shops which provide state inspections. 

Most of the group are employed by organizations which benefit from the continuation, certainly not the reformation of, the inspection program. How could this have been a productive way to reach consensus on reducing the burden of this mandate? 

The working group’s report primarily rests on its claim that the mandate saved 51 lives on the road in 2020, in addition to 2,200 injuries and more than 7,000 instances of property damage. To support this contrived claim, they reference a Carnegie Mellon study which modeled a large national dataset on residential vehicle emissions and inspections from all 50 states over 44 years. Instead of using hard data on motor vehicle accidents and deaths in states with and without inspection programs, this study used computer modeling to estimate that states with inspection programs saved 1,000 road fatalities in the United States in 2018.

The problem is that the Maine working group then used that finding to extrapolate its claim of 51 lives saved (presumably based on population, since Maine’s population is about 0.5% of the nation) and compared it to 2020, a uniquely difficult year for any type of social analysis.

Curiously, the group neglected to mention that vehicle inspection expirations were extended for the majority of 2020 due to the state of emergency declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic, along with all state driver’s licenses, IDs, and vehicle registrations. These provisions remained in effect until October 19 2020; at which point vehicles purchased after March 15, 2020 were not required to be registered or inspected until early 2021.

While auto mechanics were considered “essential” workers during the emergency period, there was effectively no legal requirement for individuals to have their cars inspected during this time. The working group’s conclusion that the program “saved lives” in 2020 is laughable in its blatant cronyism.

Proponents often argue that the inspection sticker fee is too low and garages aren’t adequately reimbursed for the time to conduct an inspection. Framing the idea as protecting small businesses, they argue that the inspection sticker fee is too low and garages can’t afford to administer the program. In a working group session, Rep. Wayne Parry of Arundel noted that he would be open to biennial, instead of annual, inspections, with a doubled fee. He even floated the idea that the inspection fee “should at least cover [the garage’s] labor… it’s $30-35 per hour for a good mechanic.”

This sentiment was reflected in the working group’s final report, released in January 2022: “The group unanimously agrees that the fees should be increased to somewhere between $25.00 to $35.00 per inspection.”

But, Rep. Parry also argues that it isn’t about the money, because the program ensures Mainers’ cars are safe on the roads: “We don’t want them to make sure they have work, we want them to make sure cars are safe.” Of course, this argument is worth discussion only if inspections ensure safety, which they do not.

Maine Policy report released in 2021 reviewed the literature surrounding the arguments of proponents of vehicle inspection mandates. It noted that between 2015 and 2019, the Maine Department of Transportation found that only 3% of car accidents involved a mechanical issue. The Department did not even record mechanical failure as a cause before 2015. In that report, DOT data show crashes involving the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication were 53% more common than those involving tire, wheel, steering, suspension, transmission, or brake issues: 2.67% versus 1.75% of all crashes, respectively.

Research over the last four decades has not shown a link between mandatory safety inspections and lower traffic fatalities. A federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of six rigorous studies examining vehicle safety inspection programs found no statistically significant difference in crash rates, fatalities, or injuries between states with and without inspection programs. Maine law already designates operating a “defective vehicle” as a Class E crime, meaning State Police may pull over drivers who they believe are operating an unsafe vehicle.

Inspection requirements do not correlate with lower automobile insurance rates, which one would think would be the case if roads were safer in inspection states. If requiring state inspection does not even save drivers money in the end, how does it help the public?

By doubling the fee and raising the costs of compliance on all Maine drivers, the Transportation Committee’s working group caved to the tired arguments of proponents, mostly mechanic shops who benefit from the requirement, failing in the task of delivering much-need reform to the inspection program. LD 2032 would hurt those who ultimately foot the bill: Maine drivers.

Even inspection stations themselves are not recertified until every other year. Inspection technicians don’t have to renew their licenses until the five-year mark, yet everyday Maine drivers must purchase their services every year, lest they face fines and ticketing from police. 

Who is really helping “the little guy” here? Everyone pays this fee, which is why Sen. Ben Chipman, Democrat of Portland, said in a March 2021 work session that he “would be hesitant to raise it.”

After having been engrossed on a voice vote the previous week, even without a proper public hearing, the bill seemed like a unanimous proposal. But because Maine Policy raised the alarm on Monday, taxpayers will know how their legislator voted on doubling the inspection sticker fee.

Sadly, when the bill came up for vote on Tuesday, 95 members of the Maine House voted for it. In other words, all but eight Democrats and Independents and 31 Republicans voted to double vehicle inspection fees on Mainers in the midst of 40-year inflation and skyrocketing energy costs.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for a final vote on Thursday. If passed by the Senate, the bill will move to Governor Mills’ desk for a signature or veto. If approved Thursday, we’ll no doubt be asking Gov. Mills to use her veto pen.