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By: Robert Janis

Ohio Motorized Trails Association

Anatomy of a Law: The All-Purpose Vehicle Registration Reciprocity Law of Ohio--A Case Study

At the end of March, 2008, the governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, signed Senate Bill 209 making the All-Purpose Vehicle (APV) Registration Reciprocity legislation law in the state of Ohio. The law permits ATVers and off-road motorcyclists from neighboring states to ride trails in the state of Ohio without getting Ohio registration. Moreover, it permits Ohio ATVers and motorcyclists to ride the trails of neighboring states that also have a reciprocity law.

When it was first considered, the legislation did not only include reciprocity; it also covered other issues related to off-road recreation. However, these issues were dropped from the bill and only reciprocity became law.

So what happened? Why were all the other issues pertaining to off-road recreation dropped from the legislation? Why was there a need to pass a reciprocity law in the first place?

Matthew Mesarchik, the chairman for ATVs for the Ohio Motorized Trails Association, was heavily involved in the process, and he has the answers.

History

According to Mesarchik, most states that have a registration program for ATVs and off-road motorcycles honor each other’s registration. Most states that have a registration process use the funds raised by the selling of the registration to care for their trail systems.

“The basic concept of reciprocity of ATV registrations is that if I honor yours, you honor mine, and you don’t have to buy a sticker when you come into my state, and I don’t have to buy a sticker when I go into yours,” said Mesarchik. “However, not all states use the same system. Some states have a registration, which also enters vehicle data into law enforcement databases to aid in tracking stolen units; some states use a statewide trail permit or trail permit for individual trails, and some states use both. In the end it’s just complicated. When you travel to another state, you should check with rider organizations such as ATVA or a state association to make sure you are legal.”

“What happened in Ohio was, although we have the fourth largest population of off-road recreationists in the country, we have very few trails,” continued Mesarchik. “We have a good number of trail miles by Wayne National Forest in southern Ohio, and there are five scattered areas of trails operated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).”

Mesarchik noted that most of the trails managed by the ODNR are very short--probably about five miles long -- and they don’t go anywhere. So, most Ohio ATV and off-road motorcyclists don’t bother to ride them.

The reason why Ohio has very few trails is because the funding system of the state is “broken,” said Mesarchik. “We’re in a vicious cycle where people don’t want to buy our home state’s registration because there are not many trails, and there aren’t many trails because people don’t buy the registration which funds the trails. Moreover, our registration sticker is only $8.50 for three years. By the time you cover the Bureau of Motor Vehicle (BMV) fees and the cost of the sticker, only $1.25 per ATV per year goes into the trail fund.”

So, in an effort to fix the broken system, legislation was introduced in 2005 that included a fee increase, a few other positive provisions, and canceling reciprocity. Canceling reciprocity was not something riders wanted, and AMA and ATVA voiced concerns. In the end, it was thought that allowing reciprocity to be canceled was acceptable because of all the other good provisions in the bill. That’s when things started to go wrong. Legislators who had just had to deal with a public backlash over an attempt to charge a parking fee in the state parks were very nervous about the fee increase even though it was supported and asked for by the riders. By the time the bill had been through the committees and floor votes, it had been picked apart by the legislature; the only thing left was the canceling of reciprocity.

“But there was a problem with the premise,” said Mesarchik. Because the trails in Ohio are short and generally don’t offer much to riders, very few riders come to Ohio from other states compared to the number of Ohio riders who visit surrounding states to do their riding. There were some exceptions. “There was one specific case with Maumee State Forest in northwest Ohio where a large number of riders were coming in from Michigan because it was just over the state line,” said Mesarchik. “So ODNR pointed to the Maumee trail as an example of why they should cancel reciprocity. However, that isn’t what was happening statewide.”

Mesarchik added that ODNR did not consider the fact that the state of Michigan does not have a registration system for off-road motorcycles and ATVs. They only have registration for snowmobiles. They sell a separate trail permit for ATVs and motorcycles. So under the existing Ohio law and Michigan law, riders from Michigan would have to purchase Ohio registration, anyway.

So reciprocity was canceled in Ohio, and the result was that fewer funds were raised and riders from Ohio who went to Pennsylvania to ride had to buy a Pennsylvania registration. “In northeast Ohio there are no ATV trails funded by our registration process,” explained Mesarchik. “So the majority of riders were going to Pennsylvania to ride, and our sticker was no longer good in Pennsylvania. So our riders had to get a Pennsylvania registration. A large number of Ohio riders stopped buying Ohio registration.”

Reciprocity Reinstated

So it didn’t take too long for people to figure out that things would be better if Ohio reinstated its reciprocity law.

Mesarchik got in touch with people at the American Motorcyclists Association in Columbus, Ohio, and they told him to contact his state association. He also happened to live close to the president of the Ohio Snowmobile Association and went to talk to him. He also met with members of the Ohio Motorized Trails Association. “The members of OMTA asked me to become a member and take an officer position to fight for this. So I did,” he said.

Soon after joining OMTA Mesarchik and other OMTA members started working on legislation that would not only reinstate reciprocity, but would also cover other issues involved with off-road recreation. He opened a dialog with a variety of groups including OMTA, the Ohio Snowmobile Association, and other groups to develop model legislation that would restore reciprocity and also get more funds for trail use by raising the registration fee. “Our sticker was so cheap; it only put $1.25 into the fund for every ATV and off-road bike rider. So our fund only generated $80,000 a year,” he added.

The groups were able to hammer out legislation that would raise the registration fee to $10 a year which is comparable to the fee rate of the neighboring states, reinstate reciprocity, and also cover other issues.

“ODNR took all the stuff we mapped out, handed it over to the Legislation Services Commission which drafted the legislation,” said Mesarchik. “ODNR was supposed to attach the bill to an ODNR omnibus bill to be introduced into the state legislature in 2006. However, because of budget problems and because of lingering memories concerning the state parks’ attempt to charge people for a parking permit to use the state parks, ODNR was forbidden from supporting the legislation because it included a fee increase. We were right back to square one. It was very frustrating. But we kept at it, and in late 2007 we finally got reciprocity back into a bill by itself.  It was passed in March, 2008.”

Everything except reciprocity was dropped from the bill, and ODNR supported and helped to push through the legislation. So reciprocity was reinstated.

Drafting Additional Legislation

Mesarchik, the OMTA, and other off-road recreational groups continued to push for legislation that included all the elements that were dropped from the original bill. It looked like ODNR would support the new legislation, but the new governor forbade any state agency from supporting legislation that would raise taxes. So Mesarchik, OMTA, and the other off-road recreational groups had to find a legislator who would introduce the legislation for them.

“In February of 2007 we learned that a state representative was looking to sponsor legislation that was to put a lot of restrictions on motorized recreation in the state of Ohio,” said Mesarchik. “We requested a copy of the bill and discovered that there was some awful stuff in it. It included a program to operate an ATV off your own property that would force you to go to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to take a skills test on your ATV and have an off-road endorsement on your driver’s license. The bill also had other equally unreasonable, unprecedented, and ridiculous provisions.”

It turned out that the representative who was sponsoring the legislation was concerned about trespassing, youth safety, and other issues.

“For whatever reason, before she could talk to user groups, she listened to people who pressed her to do something about the trespassing problem. Those people were from the Ohio Farm Bureau, law enforcement from her district and some township and county officials,” said Mesarchik.

“She wanted to do something good, but she took suggestions from people who didn’t have a good grasp of the root causes of trespassing, or all the other issues concerning motorized recreation,” continued Mesarchik. “It all goes back to lack of trails. In states where there are a lot of trails, riders grow up respecting them. In Ohio there are no trails to ride so a culture of outlaw riders developed. So, Ohio has a history of treating off-road recreation as a problem instead of an opportunity.”

Mesarchik scheduled a meeting with this state representative and quickly learned that she wanted to cooperate. She had asked ODNR to comment on the bill, and they had given her feedback that sounded like it came from OMTA because OMTA and Mesarchik had worked with them and educated them. “She really wanted to do something positive that would help solve the trespassing problems as well as help the sport grow and become the advantage it can be for the state’s economy,” said Mesarchik. “She really has taken a keen interest in the issues facing our sport.”

Soon the rep was asking Mesarchik and his group to help draft the legislation. Once in the process Mesarchik contacted OMTA, the American Motorcyclists Association, the All-Terrain Vehicle Association, the Ohio Snowmobile Association and other groups for input. “We all worked together,” said Mesarchik. “AMA had knowledge of the law regarding ATVs and dirt bikes, not just in Ohio but in all states. It can be helpful to compare what we are trying to accomplish with what other states do. Whenever we had legal questions, we went to AMA for the answers. We also sent questions out to the leadership of other state associations through the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC). NOHVCC has partners in each state, and we got some very useful feedback from state partners, particularly Dick Lepley in Pennsylvania. After three weeks we sent the representative a copy of our ideas, and she was happy.”

Currently the legislation is with the Legislation Services Commission which is actually drafting a formal bill for introduction into the state legislature. “We expect to have the first draft of the language back by the end of the first week of May,” said Mesarchik. “But it will be an on-going process. One of the challenges is that we are trying to draft a bill that not only contains what we the riders, want, but that can also be supported by other groups like the Ohio Farm Bureau and law enforcement. That can be difficult to do, especially since it may mean we have to go along with a provision that we are neutral on, or that we know might not universally be popular with riders. It is important, though, because if we had to deal with opposition from those two groups, it would be very difficult to get anything good for the riders. It’s a very fine line to try and walk.”

When there finally is a final draft, the bill goes to the Agriculture Committee of the Ohio State House of Representatives. Once the bill is voted out of committee, it goes to the State House of Representatives for a vote. If it passes, it then goes to the Agriculture Committee in the State Senate then on to the Senate.

The rep whom Mesarchik has been working with will be introducing the legislation by the end of the spring session.

The legislation if passed into law would:

  • Raise the registration fee from $8.75 for a three-year sticker to $35 for a three-year sticker. Ten dollars per year for each registration will go into the trail fund. It is expected that the fee increase will generate $500,000 a year for the trail fund. Now it is generating only $80,000 a year.
  • Call for a license plate to be put on ATVs. “A license plate is more visible than a small sticker,” explained Mesarchik. “This is for the trespassing issue. Law enforcement and the Farm Bureau can read a license plate from a distance, and that will more efficiently fight against trespassing and illegal riding.”
  • Include mandatory registration. Only farmers who qualify with a current agriculture tax exemption will be allowed not to get the registration. The mandatory registration is expected to put more money into the trails fund.
  • Include mandatory youth safety training. “There will be no new safety training,” explained Mesarchik. “Instead, youth must take an ATV Safety Institute Rider Course, a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Dirt bike Safety Course, or an International Snowmobile Manufacturers’ Association Safety Course.
  • Create a regulatory board of riders to determine how the trail money will be spent.

It is hoped that the bill will be passed and signed by the governor by the end of the year or very early next year.


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