Yes, Let’s Restore Drivers Licenses. But…

The General Assembly spiked bills in the 2019 session that would have ended the practice of suspending the drivers licenses of Virginians who fail to pay court fines and other obligations unrelated to driving. Without some kind of repercussion, foes of the bills argued, those obligations often would go unpaid.

Now Governor Ralph Northam is proposing to use the budget as an end run around the failed legislation. He is adding an amendment to the budget bill to end the licenses-suspension practice and reinstate driving privileges for more than 600,000 Virginians.

“Having a driver’s license is essential to a person’s ability to maintain a job and provide for their families,” Northam said at a press conference yesterday. “It is especially pertinent to those that live in rural Virginia because we don’t have public transportation that is adequate to get to employment.”

Halting the suspension of drivers licenses for offenses not related to driving has gained strong bipartisan support in recent years. The practice creates a Catch-22 situation for hundreds of thousands of Virginians: They don’t pay their court penalties or child support obligations, so they lose their licenses. If they can’t drive, it becomes much more difficult to get to work and maintain a job. Without a job, the prospect of repaying their fines becomes even more remote. Or, if they continue to drive illegally, they run the prospect of racking up more penalties and fines.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is the single most important reform the state can make to help Virginia’s working poor. Public policy should aim to make it easier, not more difficult, for people to work, earn money, and meet their obligations. If there’s one thing everyone across the ideological spectrum can agree upon, it’s that we want people to become more employable and self-sufficient. I whole-heartedly support this goal.

However, let’s be realistic. Restoring drivers’ licenses will create a new set of issues. Those who oppose the reform do have a point: The world is full of scofflaws, and the courts will lose a tool for collecting fines and penalties. Mechanisms need to be created that allow poor people to repay fines and penalties over time. If they fail, or simply refuse, to meet their obligations, courts need sanctions of a different kind. What those are, I don’t know. But we don’t want to solve one endemic injustice by creating another.

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8 responses to “Yes, Let’s Restore Drivers Licenses. But…

  1. This works and we can stop calling it the Reconvened Session and start calling it the Reconsideration Session. Bills die in the regular order of business, and the Governor seeks to stretch the rules and revive them. This might just get spiked on procedural grounds, and should be, but clear majorities in both chambers are ready for this change.

    Some of those tax rebates/grants that the Governor wants to give to more people will be diverted by the Tax Department into paying off some of the unpaid fines. But $110 won’t do it for most of them….

    And how many more tickets will be issued – and then not paid – when the cops are pulling everybody over for having a smartphone in their hands! All the threads come together…

    “Mechanisms need to be created that allow poor people to repay fines and penalties over time.” They have been, they are in place now, and all the person needs to do is apply for a payment plan and it is granted. But then they ignore that, some of them…..

  2. Putting aside the merits, which should be done when evaluating an exercise of government power, what is the difference between Northam’s actions writing unrelated substantive legislation into a spending bill and Trump’s twisting appropriations into funding the Wall? Both are creating results for which they could not and did not receive legislative approval.

    On the merits, I think some relaxation of the current rules on suspended licenses, such as allowing the individual (first time offender) to drive to work and other key functions (grocery store and doctors office), should be authorized by the GA. Similarly, I think a border wall in key urban locations makes good sense and should be approved by Congress. But I support the basic principles of separation of powers and checks and balances over specific results.

    • There is a major difference between Northam’s action and Trump’s. Northam’s action must be approved by the legislature. If the General Assembly does not approve the proposed budget amendment in the reconvened session next week, it is dead. That is obviously not the case with Trump.

      Regardless of the merits of the proposal, I have long been troubled by this tendency of governors and legislators (of both parties) to use the budget bill as a vehicle for policy measures not directly related to appropriations, including amending sections of the state Code. (As a former budget analyst, I plead guilty to this practice.) This “legislating through the budget” is done for strategic reasons. The goal is to bypass unfriendly committees or subcommittees and get the proposal before the friendlier budget committees or, as is the case here, before the full House and full Senate. A budget amendment before the full body is subject to an up or down vote, with no change possible.

  3. The number of possible solutions are myriad. 1. Suspend the license but with the right to drive to work and school. 2. For real teeth, don’t suspend the license, give a payment plan that works a little like child support, I. E., a minimum amount for somebody not employed, say 5 or 10 bucks a month, which absolutely anybody can find somewhere, ranging to higher amounts depending on income. When it isn’t paid, start doing weekends in jail where the failure to pay is willful. Proving “willfulness” may be a problem, but current technology may yield a treasure trove of data on somebody’s other expenditures. A waiver of privacy could be required in order to access that information. A few well publicized cases might well yield more immediate payments.

    There is precedent for this in code section 19.2-358, which provides that a willful failure to pay restitution can get you 60 days in jail. So far that statute has not been overturned as against the challenge that it’s imprisonment for debt. Of course, the logistics of the enforcement problem are probably the same as the current system, maybe worse, but at least folks can drive to work and/or go look for work. And revenues would very likely increase.

  4. I’m sorta with JD on this with the proviso that we’ve designed a system that basically discriminates against those who are not wealthy and we need to have a “DMV” type system where everyone gets treated the same no matter your economic LOT in life and the hell of it is – the system we got – drives (pun intended) into unemployment and from there into all manner of ugly life events that sooner or later come back on the rest of us.

    The solution I like is to force miscreants into public service – that becomes both punishment and opportunity,

    I just don’t understand why we have to do the stupid thing to start with.

  5. “Public policy should aim to make it easier, not more difficult, for people to work, earn money, and meet their obligations.”
    Hey I can name one… We need to to do away with Certificates of Public Need. Then I could open medical establishments without permission from the state and get rich.
    But hospitals hate competition so guess that won’t be happening any time soon…

  6. Transportation justice should dictate that we don’t need a western construct like a drivers license that was obviously instituted simply to burden those of low income and thus is unjust as it affects them disproportionately.
    Don’t all transportation related fines, fees, and taxes disproportionately affect low income Virginians? The unjustness runs deep in this oppressive western colonist government.
    Traffic violations are not violent crimes, we shouldn’t even bother enforcing them. We could institute restorative driver justice where drivers say they are kinda sorta sorry, iet go, and thus not a burden to the western unjust colonist court system so it has time to disporptionately oppress others.
    The governor is making sure the hands free device enforcement will not disproportionately affect people if color. My premise above is not that far off from the mainstream.

  7. Brilliant comment, NorrhsideDude –

    Let me also remind you that good schools that impose rigorous learning on our children are also a “a western construct that was obviously instituted simply to burden those of low income and thus is unjust as it affects them disproportionately.”

    The problem is that China (not to mention India and Japan) reject America’s post modern progressive social justice nonsense, so China will bury us soon. And do so quite literally, along with our nonsense.

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