A bill that would temporarily allow some Ohioans who have lost their driver’s license to regain it without paying a reinstatement fee passed the Ohio House of Representatives on Wednesday.
“The way that the system would change under this bill would eliminate kind of a debtors’ prison,” said State Rep. John E. Barnes, Jr., D-Cleveland, the bill’s co-sponsor.
“This bill will hopefully provide people with an opportunity to have a fresh start.”
State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, was the only member to vote no on the House Bill 336.
“Amnesty is a bad idea, especially for those convicted of street racing or theft of gasoline,” Antani said. “While I understand there are some people who fall into an insurmountable debt due to minor traffic violations, street racing and theft of gasoline should not have been included as eligible offenses for this relief program.”
The bill, which passed 78-1, would provide a six-month “amnesty” period and eligibility requirements for people to get a fee reduction or waiver of driver license reinstatement fees. It now heads to the Ohio Senate for consideration.
It is one of at least three bills pending in the state legislature that attempt to address the problem of driver license suspensions that leave some people unable to get to work and so unable to pay the reinstatement fees required to get their licenses back.
Drivers in Ohio can lose their license for a variety of driving offenses, such as driving under the influence and driving without insurance, as well as actions that have nothing to do with driving, including non-payment of child support, dropping out of high school, and skipping a court date.
“It defies logic that you would take away their means of getting to work so they can earn money to pay their child support or their court fines, said Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, who is co-sponsoring a separate bill that would would automatically allow limited driving privileges to necessary places like work and school for those whose driver’s license is suspended for issues unrelated to driving or using a vehicle for criminal purposes.
Butler said he supported the bill that passed Wednesday because it begins a needed process of looking at the state’s charges for license reinstatement, which he said are taxes disguised as a fee.
“Whenever you have a fee that is more than the cost to run the service, it’s a tax. It’s generating money. And in this case it has a disproportionate impact on certain individuals,” Butler said.
Under the bill passed Wednesday eligibility for license reinstatement fee reduction or waiver would be limited to those who have had their license suspended for at least 18 months, can demonstrate proof of indigence, have paid all other fees and penalties and completed court sanctions, said Carly McCain, legislative aide to Barnes.
Those eligible cannot have lost their license due to non-payment of child support, or offenses involving drugs, alcohol, violence or crimes of a sexual nature, she said.
“It is our goal to create a reasonable, practical, and measured attempt to make sure that Ohioans are legal to drive with a valid driver’s license and insurance while driving through our neighborhoods and on our interstates,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, State Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake, in a news release issued after the vote.
Last year 1.1 million Ohioans had their driver’s license suspended for one or more reasons. That total is nearly 12 percent of those old enough to drive in the state.
Ohio law allows for multiple suspensions of a license and the average number of suspensions per driver was 2.96 in 2016, according to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles. All but three types of suspension come with a reinstatement fee, ranging from $40 to $650, and people who get multiple suspensions can wind up with reinstatement fees in the thousands of dollars.
In the Senate a bill introduced by State Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, would permit judges to impose community service in lieu of paying reinstatement fees. The only Republican co-sponsor of that bill is State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima.
“There’s this permanent underclass we’ve created,” Huffman said in an earlier interview. “If you’re $4,000 or $5,000 down and that’s what it takes to get your driver’s license, you just don’t do it.”
Other stories by Lynn Hulsey