The state's biggest county rolled out a state rule that makes Discover, MasterCard supreme for license and permit transactions.
Waiting patiently for his number to be called Tuesday at Hennepin County's downtown Minneapolis service center, Decorrien Bennett looked puzzled when told he couldn't use a Visa card to pay for his title transfer and license.
Was that a problem? "It just became a problem," he said, opening his wallet and flashing his credit card -- a Visa.
The world's most popular credit card is no longer welcome at Hennepin's seven service centers, thanks to Visa's policies and a recent state mandate requiring a 2.45 percent credit card transaction fee to be charged to the customer.
Visa doesn't allow such fees to be charged at the point of sale, but MasterCard and Discover do. That's why those cards suddenly have become the plastic of choice in Hennepin and other counties looking to implement the new state rule.
"It's kind of shocking, because everyone has Visa," said Casey Manthie, another service center customer. She had already heard about the new policy, so she came prepared with good old-fashioned cash. Checks also work.
Most transactions at county service centers involve passports, driver's licenses, vehicle registrations and tabs, hunting and fishing tags, and other state and local permits.
Hennepin conducted 911,000 service center transactions last year, a third paid for with plastic. Those cards were Visas about 80 percent of the time, said Mark Chapin, the county's director of Taxpayer Services.
Hennepin County computer technicians worked hard last weekend to make the new system operational Monday, Chapin said. Clerks were instructed to warn customers about the fee before they pay with credit or debit cards.
It began with a state mandate to charge a fee to customers to cover the cost of the transaction, and to align the credit/debit card systems used by deputy registrars with that of the state.
Motor vehicle transactions used to be done only with cash or check because of bank charges to process credit and debit card payments. But state officials decided to open the door to electronic transactions and charge the cost of doing business to the customer as a "convenience fee."
A study by the state Department of Public Safety done three years ago noted that the combination of going without Visa as a payment option, along with the fees, could discourage customers from using debit and credit cards. But it still offered customers the choice of using plastic, the study said.
Chapin said that Hennepin residents can still use Visa to pay their property taxes online but not at the counter.
The University of Minnesota ran into a similar situation involving Visa when it first began accepting credit cards for tuition payments five years ago. Because Visa refused to let the U charge students and parents a fee for using its card, the U went instead with American Express, Discover and MasterCard.
Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed to this story. Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455