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By Sean Gorman February 1, 2013

McDonnell says $56 car registration fee in Virginia would still be "equal or lower" than most states

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s plan to expand revenues for transportation includes a $15 increase in the state’s car registration fee.

"Right now, $41 is our average registration. This will change it to $56," McDonnell said at a Jan. 8 news conference.  "This registration fee, even at an average $56, still puts us at a rate equal to or lower than most states in the country."

We asked the governor’s office to back up McDonnell’s claim that, even with the 37 percent increase, Virginia’s registration fee would compare equally or favorably to most states.

Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor, said it’s difficult to get an apples-to-apples comparison of how Virginia’s registration fee measures up to other states, because of differences among the states in how the those fees are assessed.

"However, when looking at the common vehicle fees that most states use, such as vehicle license fees (registration), title fees and title taxes (sales tax), Virginia is clearly one of the lowest in our region of the country even with the proposed $15 increase," Caldwell said in an e-mail.

When comparing just registration fees, Caldwell said, Virginia’s proposed new fee would still be lower than states such as Maryland, Wisconsin, Montana, Illinois, Oklahoma and Vermont.

We note that McDonnell’s statement compared registration fees to "most states" in the U.S. -- not one region or group of states. The governor’s statement also specifically focused on the $41 average registration fee for a passenger car -- a standard registration cost that doesn’t include the expense of getting a title or paying the sales tax.

Given the narrow focus of McDonnell’s statement, we looked at how Virginia’s basic registration fee -- assessed annually at $40.75 for vehicles up to 4,000 pounds -- would compare to other states if it were increased by $15.

As Caldwell wrote, it is difficult to get an apples-to-apples comparison among all 50 states. While Virginia and 25 other states levy a uniform registration fee for cars up to a certain weight, other states use an assortment of calculations that consider factors such as a vehicle’s horsepower, selling price, weight and the year it was first registered.

We examined a list of registration fees from the National Conference of State Legislatures and one compiled by the American Automobile Association.

The lists show 28 other states have registration fees that are lower than the $56 annual charge McDonnell seeks for Virginia. These states either had a set rate that is lower than the proposed new fee in Virginia, or a formula that put the maximum charge for a 4,000-pound vehicles below $56.

By contrast, only seven states would have higher registration fees than Virginia -- the six Caldwell mentioned in his email and Hawaii.

We couldn’t come to a conclusion on how Virginia’s proposed new fee would compare to 14 other states because of variables in their formulas for computing registration costs. For example, New Jersey’s fee ranges from $35.50 to $84 based on the age and weight of the car. South Dakota’s fees range from $30 to $92, again based on how old the car is and how much it weighs while Louisiana’s registration ranges from $20 to $82 based on a vehicle’s selling price.

Our ruling

McDonnell said that if his proposed $56 car registration fee is approved, Virginia’s annual registration costs would still be "equal to or lower than" most states. The governor’s office, when asked, offers no proof to this claim.

Information from AAA and the National Conference of State Legislatures shows the governor is wrong. Under McDonnell’s plan, Virginia’s registration would be higher than 28 states and lower than seven. The 14 other states have variables in their formulas for computing car registration fees that could result in charges that are higher or lower than the $56 McDonnell has proposed.

The bottom line is that Virginia would have a higher car registration fee than most states. McDonnell’s claim has no basis and we give it our lowest rating, Pants of Fire.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s comments on transportation plan, Jan. 8, 2013.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, "Governor Bob McDonnell delivers State of the Commonwealth Address" Jan. 9, 2013.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, "Governor McDonnell proposes major transportation funding overhaul to inject $3.1 billion into Virginia’s highways, rail and transit systems in next 5 years,"  Jan. 8 2013.

E-mail from Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, Jan. 17, 2013.

National Conference of State Legislatures, "Registration and title fees by state (2012 chart)," Nov. 2012.

American Automobile Association, "Title and Registration fees,"  accessed Jan. 21, 2013.

Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, "DMV fees," accessed Jan. 21, 2013.

Interview with Bob Thompson, economist at the Idaho Transportation Department, Jan. 17, 2013.

Idaho Transportation Department, "State-by-state comparison of annual motor vehicle registration fees and fuel taxes, 2011,"  Oct. 25, 2011.

Interview with Anne Teigen, a senior policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, Jan. 15, 2013.

E-mail from Sunni Blevins Brown, public relations and media liaison for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Jan. 30, 2013.

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