- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - State lawmakers hope to offer relief to thousands of Louisiana drivers who collectively owe millions of dollars to the Office of Motor Vehicles in unpaid fines from lapsed insurance coverage.

It’s not clear yet what form that relief might take, but House and Senate members have filed bills in each chamber trying to address drivers’ concerns.

Louisiana drivers are required to have insurance on their vehicles. The OMV is currently owed more than $265 million in unpaid fines issued to drivers with lapsed coverage, leading the state Office of Debt Recovery to revoke driver’s licenses and seize tax refunds and bank accounts. Some drivers claim they’re now insured, but can’t pay the old fines to reinstate their licenses.

The Senate transportation committee, without objection, advanced three bills Thursday attempting to ease drivers’ debts. They include amnesty guidelines, payment programs and an improved notification system, and now head to the full Senate for consideration.

More than 125,000 state drivers are listed as owing fines in an OMV database that dates back to 1986. Fines range from $125 to $525 for each violation.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, presented a bill Thursday to create a pilot amnesty program she hoped “would relieve some of the stress.” It would cap drivers’ debts at a fraction of their full amounts. The OMV would clear the records of drivers who pay and reinstate licenses after they show proof of insurance.

“I’ve received tons of phone calls (about the fines),” Barrow said, adding she wants to grant drivers grace.

Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, wants to offer relief too, but he said lawmakers need to be realistic and take a hard look at what the OMV needs to operate “in the real world.” A recent fiscal note showed Barrow’s bill could cost the OMV more than $160 million in lost revenue.

OMV Commissioner Karen St. Germain said the cash-strapped office’s on-going attempt to collect a total of $440 million owed in fines is not a “money grab.”

Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, was not so sure and echoed critics’ concerns about an unfair collection process. He suggested the OMV may improperly accuse drivers of having not paid fines when the drivers’ didn’t receive collection letters, had already sold the vehicles listed with expired insurance or were registered in other states where they’ve moved.

“My contention is that I think we’re having a case of judge, jury (and) executioner with the constituents’ money without them even potentially knowing that they were even being brought to trial,” the committee chair said Thursday.

Cortez pushed for an improved system as he presented a proposal to require that all notices of final debt include the total amount owed and all of a driver’s payment options.

Rep. Denise Marcelle, R-Baton Rouge, said her House-backed bill would provide some of those payment options by creating installment plans for drivers to pay outstanding fines. The proposal would not negate debts, but allow drivers to become licensed while they work to repay their violations.

As of now, OMV personnel have some discretion when reviewing payments, but lack the authority to reissue licenses in exchange for partial payment made through a plan, St. Germain said.

Senators agreed each bill needed some work before reaching final legislative passage, but Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, echoed Barrow’s call for grace for those burdened by debts.

“There’s a significant part of our lives that we believe in second chances and new opportunities,” he said.

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House Bill 245 and Senate Bills 387 and 400: www.legis.la.gov

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