Are Free License Plates a Good Way to Reward North Dakota’s Volunteer First Responders?

Rugged terrain and hot, windy conditions kept local volunteer firefighters on scene for up to 30 hours at a time as they worked to prevent a fire in the Badlands from doing even more damage in 2017. AMY DALRYMPLE/BISMARCK TRIBUNE

On the November ballot North Dakota voters will be asked to decide the fate of Measure 4 which, if passed, would allow volunteer first responders to get a special license plate for their vehicles for free. This plate would also entitle them to free entrance to state parks.

Here’s the full text of the measure:

I think most would agree that we probably ought to be doing more for our volunteers, but is this measure the right way to go about it?

According to a fiscal analysis presented to lawmakers recently, the cost of implementing the measure in terms of lost revenue from vehicle registrations and park admissions is not insignificant. It amounts to about more than $17.7 million over the next decade, including $13.8 million in lost revenues for the state’s highways and about $3.8 million in lost revenue for the state’s parks.

The total revenue impact for the state would be about $3.5 million per biennium.

That’s not a huge amount, in the context of the state’s overall budget, but it’s not chump change either.

The questions for voters, I think, is if that lost revenue (which would no doubt put upward pressure on vehicle registration and park entrance fees for the rest of us) worth it to do something nice for the volunteers (keep in mind, per the Bismarck Tribune, the NDDOT says registration fees are already failing to cover their costs).

Perhaps more importantly, is this a benefit the volunteers want? Or would they prefer some other form of enhanced remuneration?

“For the $3 million a biennium it would cost, I’d much rather see money go into education and fund training,” state Rep. Todd Porter, a Republican from Mandan, said during a recent committee discussion on the measure. “I think it’s a great gesture, but there are better ways to acknowledge and help,” he added.

Porter, who runs an ambulance service as his day job, makes a solid point I think. While we all want to do something nice for volunteer first responders, is this the nice thing we should do? Or would we be doing this at the expense of something those first responders might prefer?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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