Friday, March 21, 2008

‘Badge of dishonor’ could invite more than bargained for

Some state lawmakers around the country believe that imposing differently colored license plates on the vehicles of convicted drunken drivers will be a deterrent as well as a law-enforcement mechanism.

The intentions might be OK – drunken driving kills thousands each year and ruins a great many more lives – but the sanity ends as soon as the neighborhood vigilantes or vandals provide unintended consequences.

What happens when someone other than the convicted driver, such as an innocent family member, borrows the car containing the “badge of dishonor” and later becomes the victim of vandals or a crime? Aren’t we getting dangerously close to inviting such treatment by implementing these beacons?

I agree that existing laws for DUI or DWI need to be strict and penalties harsh, but states that bestow the “Scarlett Letter” on everyone using the vehicle will bring more than just shame.

Thorough research by Land Line Magazine State Legislative Editor Keith Goble shows that Ohio mandates yellow plates with red numbers for drivers convicted of DUI. I wonder if any of these people or, more importantly, their innocent loved ones, have dealt with unintended consequences.

Iowa, Georgia and Minnesota use a special combination of numbers or letters to identify motorists convicted of DUI. Law enforcement keeps an eye on these folks but at least they are not forced to wear a beacon that could invite vigilantes.

“In addition, Michigan uses paper tags to identify repeat offenders, while Oregon and Washington put a zebra sticker over the plate of habitual offenders,” Goble reports.

Zebras? Aren’t they prey animals in their natural environment?

Bravo to lawmakers in Virginia and Washington who recently chose not to advance legislation to implement these plates. There are other ways to punish offenders including jail time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Oxygen needed in the system of transactions

Someone said diesel is the lifeblood of ground transportation.

If that’s true, then truckers are the heart. And many are needing life support.

But don’t stop pumping just yet.

The good news is, more and more media are reporting the plight of independent truckers and the fuel cost crisis. The word is getting out in local and national media outlets all over the country. People are starting to notice.

The bad news is, those same stories are predicting that added costs from surcharges will trickle down to the consumers without explaining how brokers are keeping part or all of that additional overhead. They mention nothing about the middlemen who take money intended to pay for ever-rising fuel costs and line their own pockets with it. It’s a stoppage in the flow of transactions that is creating a heart attack in the system. And it’s an exploitation of shippers, truckers and, ultimately, consumers.

It so happens that right now Congress is out of town through March 31 on its annual spring break. Many of your representatives and senators will be in their home states or their home district. This is a good time to call or, better yet, meet face-to-face, and ask them to create a bill that includes a mandatory pass-through of fuel surcharges to the person paying for the fuel, including full disclosure of all fuel surcharge information by everyone involved, including brokers and carriers.

Regardless of your situation, if you’re hanging in there or about to bail, we can agree that in all fairness, the small-business truck driver should not disproportionately bear the brunt of price increases driven by global issues.

With this in mind, instead of shutting down, we need to join the conversation by loudly and clearly asking what can be done about this, while emphasizing how it affects all Americans, not just truckers.

It won’t be easy to fix all of the factors that have put truckers in this predicament. Many of the economic issues that have come together at this time such as U.S. dependency on foreign oil, a tight petroleum market, a slow economy and low freight levels, are all so complex they will require long-term, painstaking solutions.

For the shorter term, we need to find ways to clear out all the processes and procedures in the trucking industry that have allowed brokers to exploit truckers and small businesses. We need to change the dynamics of trucking transactions to ensure that small-business truckers have the same tools available to them that the big companies in the trucking industry have.

We need some breathing room. We need to pump oxygen into the circulatory system by way of transparency and full flow-through in transactions.

You are represented by one person in the U.S. House, and two people in the U.S. Senate. You need to call on all three of them.

Call (202) 224-3121. That’s the U.S. Capitol Switchboard. Give your ZIP code, and the operator can transfer you to the offices of your representative and senators. Staff will be in those offices during the spring break and should be able to tell you how to reach your senator and representatives even when they aren’t in Washington, DC.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ad valorem: Latin for ‘in proportion to value’

Can we get a little “Tax Man” Beatles music here?

Three states use a tax to bilk bucks out of trucking companies large and small for running miles in their state. It’s called an ad valorem tax, and it’s a property tax used by Kansas, Arkansas and Kentucky.

What a boneheaded “property” tax. It doesn’t matter if you don’t own property in any of these states. If you have registered a vehicle through the apportioned registration in these states, that’s what matters.

You say, “Wait a minute, I registered in Georgia.” Well, through that registration, you have listed these states on your application. Therefore, you’ve registered your vehicle in these states. And they want you to pay for miles run inside their borders. You don’t even have to do any business or buy any fuel or even stop to pee in these states, but if you drive through, they’ve got you.

If you roll through those states in your truck you will be assessed the ad valorem tax, based on miles you ran through the state in the previous year. They use the depreciated value of your equipment – even your leased equipment – and a percentage of jurisdictional miles from your total fleet miles to determine what the tax is going to be.

A question I hear a lot here at OOIDA is: Why should truckers pay an ad valorem tax to those states? Don’t truckers already pay to run the interstate system?

The answer of course is, yes, trucks already pay plenty to run through these states. Small-business truckers pay through UCR, the IRP, and the IFTA. So the crazy question remains, why do they have to pay to roll through these three states? You are not doing business, not delivering, not picking up. The crazy answer is that you’ve registered your vehicle in this state, and you’ve traveled miles there.

The assessment forms come out in January and February and are due back by the end of March. Look for the actual bill in November.

Even if you ran zero miles in one or more of these three states, no matter, the state will still find your name through the state registration system and send the assessment (they call it a rendition).

And if you ran zero miles there, don’t just think you can drop the assessment in File 13. You must put “zero” and send the form back to the state or, bam, you get billed for the maximum that state’s legislation allows.

Kansas will promptly tag you for $100. If they have reason to believe you have five trucks, it’s $500 bucks. When you get that bill, you have 15 days to protest. Kansas will reevaluate at that point and send you a new bill.

Kentucky no longer sends out an assessment or a bill, but has added a tax on the IRP registration. So it will hit you with the ad valorem tax at time of registration.

Why has no one succeeded in getting this killed via the court system? The reason is probably that when taxes are based on miles traveled in a state, it’s not as clear that they are discriminatory.

Can’t OOIDA make some kind of legal challenge?

That’s not on OOIDA’s radar screen right now. The Association has looked at it in the past, and the opportunity to win was not clear. OOIDA President and CEO Jim Johnston told me about a year ago that does not mean the Association won’t look at it again in the future. If the fee becomes excessive and more states find this a great idea, he told me, revisiting the idea of a legal action is not totally out of the question.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The blogging revolution

OK, revolution may be a bit strong.

But Web logs, like the one you’re reading right now, have come a long way since the online journals of the early 1990s.

According to Wikipedia.com, Land Line Magazine’s blog was one of at least 112 million blogs as of December 2007.

Bloggers like Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report and Will Leitch, founder of the sports blog deadspin.com, have gained a lot of influence during the past few years. Although they continue to be characterized often by mainstream media and other leaders as sideline-watching, cynical slackers that criticize from the comfort of mom and dad’s basement, their fact-checking during the 2004 Presidential Election brought an end to Dan Rather’s career at CBS News.

On March 3, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff held a roundtable with bloggers.

A transcript of the discussions is available here.

Homeland Security officials are making some important decisions involving trucking, including the agency’s desire to implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and make border crossings uniform at Mexico and Canada.

WHTI came up during the blogger roundtable, but my favorite exchange occurred late between one blogger and a seemingly frustrated Chertoff regarding security screenings for air passengers.

Chertoff’s use of one cliché reminded the blogger of President Bush’s famously mangled version of the “fool me once” saying:

Secretary Chertoff: Well, here’s the deal. We tried the private sector screening approach and the company that did it was indicted once, and then when I was head of the criminal division, we indicted them a second time because they hadn’t learned the lesson from the first time. So, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on you; fool me three times, shame on me.

Question: Wow, you got that right.

Blogging is good for democracy and even for a few laughs!