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Senator: License plates cost $1 to make; NY charges $25 for them

State Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) says the plan

State Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) says the plan to force New Yorkers to buy new license plates, at $25 apiece, amounts to "highway robbery." Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Twenty-five dollars for a new license plate? No way, says a state senator who says the cost is much, much lower, thanks to inmate labor.

State Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) on Tuesday said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to force New Yorkers to buy new license plates, at $25 apiece, beginning next year could be a huge windfall for the state at drivers’ expense and amounts to “highway robbery.”

Tedisco said data shows the cost of plates to the state — which are made at a state penitentiary in Auburn — is more like $1.15 each and the governor should scale back his plan.

“You could say $25 is not a lot. But it’s the nickel and diming,” Tedisco said. “It’s one thing after another.”

Cuomo, a Democrat, has said new license plates are needed as the state moves to a “cashless toll” scanning system. Current license plates — especially older ones that are peeling — can’t always be picked up by electronic scanners, he said, though his administration hasn’t provided specifics about how widespread the problem is. He has promoted the replacement plan as a contest for New Yorkers to vote on one of five proposed designs.

Starting next April, if your plate is 10 years old, you’ll have to give it up and buy a new one, for $25, under Cuomo’s plan. You can keep your current number — for an extra $20 — but that will go on a new plate, too.

“It’s your license plate. You should pay the cost of the license plate,” the governor said last week, defending the mandate. “If you don’t pay, then we’d have to pay out of tax dollars and then you’re charging New Yorkers who don’t have anything to do with anything, and then they’re buying your license plate.”

The $25 replacement fee was implemented in 2009 by then-Gov. David Paterson, replacing the old $15 fee. But it didn’t accompany a mandate to change plates once they were 10 years old.

Further, the statute creating the fee didn’t dictate a $25 sum but merely said the state can’t charge more than that amount, critics pointed out. So, in theory, the state could charge less than $25 per plate.

“Cuomo has discretion to waive or reduce the fee, which is ‘not to exceed $25,'” E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based fiscally conservative think tank, said on Twitter, referring to the statute.

Tedisco said records show prisoners in the state penitentiary in Auburn earn about $1.14 per hour to make the plates, amounting to about $300,000 in labor costs. Combined with the contract to the company supplying the materials, the total expenses come in just under $3 million per year.

If 3 million plates are exchanged in the first year of the mandate as expected, that would generate $75 million — more than a $70 million profit, Tedisco said.

“That’s a tremendous windfall,” the senator said. He added drivers shouldn’t have to pay for “shoddy” work for peeling plates and suggested the state should try to recoup some costs from the supplier.

Cuomo aide Rich Azzopardi shot back: “Jim Tedisco and the rest of the hypocrites coming out of the wood work should know this [the new fee] was passed in 2009, predating this administration. They could have tried to change it at any time in the last 10 years, but they didn’t.”

Cuomo’s plan could be carried out administratively without legislative approval, aides have said. That’s sparked proposals by a handful of legislators to block the mandate and even a new push for an old bill to hike minimum wage for prisoners to $3 per hour. Cuomo has said he'd support raising the wage.

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