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Driver’s license fees have piqued journalists’ curiosity and could save Ohioans $3 million

We gathered at the Budd Dairy Food Hall on Wednesday evening, doing what all co-workers do, whether their job is to report the news, teach school children to read and write or stand in line at the factory.

Of course, we grumbled and lamented recent news about the state of our industry. But as is inevitably the case, the conversation kept coming back to news from the past, stories from that day and stories yet to come.

One such story was reported on Wednesday. It wasn’t very long, or the biggest story of the day.

But it’s a great example of what Dispatch journalists do, and I thought I’d come back to it.

The story reported the status of a class action lawsuit against the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles that could compel the state to return more than $3 million to Ohio drivers who paid $1.50 license rolling between July 2018 and July 2019.

The lawsuit seeks to have the approximately 2 million affected Ohio drivers pay the $1.50 fee, plus interest.

Randy Ludlow, seen here asking a question during an initial coronavirus press conference by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on March 27, 2020, was a longtime government reporter from the Columbus Dispatch.

Randy Ludlow, a longtime Dispatch Statehouse reporter who retired in 2021, was one of them.

Randy joined us at Budd Dairy and shared how he got to know the licensing rights story. It was simple, really. He went to the BMV, paid to renew his license and looked at the receipt.

The $1.50 “laminating fee” jumped out at him because he knew the Deputy Registrars had stopped laminating cards. At this stage, the licenses were produced by BMV suppliers. The deputy registrars simply passed on each driver’s information. The seller did the rest.

From there, Randy did what he lives for. He started digging, and the headline that dominated his front-page story is a classic if you’ve ever been frustrated by bureaucratic nonsense:

“Fee charged by the state for nothing.”

“The Bureau of Motor Vehicles has authorized its deputy registrars to charge Ohio motorists over $3 million for a service that registrars no longer perform,” it began.

Three years later, the class action is progressing on the basis of its findings.

On an individual basis, the $1.50 fee can be small potatoes. But as Catherine Turcer, executive director of the good governance group Common Cause Ohio, rightly told Randy at the time, it was the principle of the thing that mattered.

“Obviously registrars shouldn’t charge for something they don’t provide,” she said. “It’s not fair. A lot of us don’t think of a dollar fifty. It’s not a big deal. But it’s a big deal when you think of extra fees being charged for no reason. We want spend our money on what we expected.”

The story was normal for Randy, who has lived and breathed newsgathering since he started as a copywriter at The Indianapolis News in 1972.

I remember one night after work in 2009 when we all gathered at a downtown bar known as The Inn Between. Governor Ted Strickland and his entourage entered. Before the rest of us could say the words, “Hey, it’s Strickland…” Randy had left our table, clipboard in hand, throwing questions at Strickland about the news of the day. We later joked that a member of the Governor’s staff was likely criticized for unwittingly driving Strickland straight into Randy Ludlow’s watering hole.

He upheld that energetic right to retirement, laying the groundwork for the Dispatch report that led to the discovery of widespread abuse at the state prison system’s admissions center.

As discussions of other stories circled the table Wednesday night, I felt a familiar feeling, a feeling that resurfaces every time I’m around my colleagues at Dispatch as they talk shop.

It’s a feeling that I’m lucky to know them and call them my peers. Often, I admit, this feeling is accompanied by the nagging suspicion that I am an intruder who has somehow managed to find my way into a circle of much more talented people. Maybe they haven’t noticed yet, I think, although I can hear Randy grumbling right now, “We got it, Decker. We got it.”

I try to limit the cheerleaders in this space, but as the industry heads into what looks like another tough time, I thought some were in order. I appreciate the reporters who fill our pages and website with breaking news, captivating images, sports commentary and more. I hope you still do too.

Theodore Decker is the columnist for Metro Dispatch.