Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has officially voiced opposition to 22 bills pending in the Legislature, including measures revising the state’s motorcycle helmet law, allowing school faculty and staff to carry guns and increasing the penalty for motorists not wearing a seat belt.
The governor this year is not issuing formal “flag letters” to legislators except when there are “philosophical” objections to the measure, according to gubernatorial spokesman David Smith.
In the past, Haslam also issued “fiscal flags” against bills that called for what the governor deemed inappropriate state spending. But this year, Smith said the administration policy is to caution against any legislation that has a “fiscal note,” prepared by legislative staff, projecting a need for spending that is not part of Haslam’s budget proposal for the coming year.
“Basically, any bill with a fiscal note with at least $1 of impact on the state budget would get a fiscal flag since it’s not accounted for in the budget proposal (under prior practice),” Smith wrote in an email. “So we stopped issuing a letter because between our office issuing a letter and a non-administration bill having a fiscal note we found those efforts duplicative.”
In response to a News Sentinel request, the governor’s office provided copies of all “philosophical flag” letters that have been sent to legislators this year as of Friday. The form letters, signed by Leslie Hafner, the governor’s chief legislative liaison, do not explain reasons for opposition, but state that an administration representative will seek a meeting with the lawmaker for discussion.
“The administration understands this is an important issue to you and is cognizant of your efforts. The administration, however, respectfully disagrees with this legislation in its current form,” says a standard line in most of the letters.
Here is a list of the bills questioned by Haslam:
State lawmakers thought a 2011 bill allowing revocation of driver’s licenses for deadbeats who failed to pay criminal fines and court costs would reap millions in reinstatement fees, reports the Chattanooga TFP. But seven months into the first year of operation, only nine counties are complying and the state has collected just $22,425. The shortfall has left a gaping hole in the department’s budget, Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said last week.
“The department is requesting $7.6 million in supplemental funding for the current fiscal year in order to correct the overestimate of driver’s license reinstatement fees,” Gibbons told Senate Transportation Committee members.
The law requires county court clerks to notify the state of scofflaws who’ve gone at least a year without paying anything toward fines and costs. The department then revokes their licenses until they start to pay up.
Tennessee charges $65 for each license reinstatement plus an additional fee for the license.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell is among those participating. So are clerks in the three other largest counties — Davidson, Knox and Shelby.
A number of counties are “working on methods to provide notices electronically” to the state, Gibbons said.
Starting July 1, clerks throughout Tennessee gained the power to begin suspending driver’s licenses if court fees and fines go unpaid for a year. But The Tennessean reports that not a single license has been suspended, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Even Tommy Bradley, chief administrative officer for the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk’s Office and the man who wrote the law, is holding off until Aug. 1 to give debtors one last chance to pay at least something.
Other clerks are questioning whether to suspend licenses at all, out of logistical or moral reservations.
“I just want to wait and see,” said Wilson County Circuit Court Clerk Linda Neal. “I’m afraid this law is going to be hurting the people who would really like to put out the effort to pay and they simply can’t.”
Bradley acknowledges there is “widespread” opposition to the law, which he wrote to help collect hundreds of millions in uncollected court costs.
…Neal said that aside from moral qualms at saddling poor offenders with even more burdens, she’s not sure she has the money or staff to send out notices and then process debtors for suspensions.
“We’ve got all the work that we can say grace over now,” Neal said. “To me, it’s going to be more record-keeping and a little bit more difficult to keep up with.”
Neal said she’s more likely to just continue sending unpaid debts to a collection agency. It’s cheaper and easier on her overworked staff.
Thousands of Tennesseans who haven’t paid court costs and fines will start losing their driver’s licenses on July 1 under a law enacted by the General Assembly last year. Bob Fowler reports that county court clerks and judges, who are preparing to begin enforcing the law, have differing opinions about whether it’s a wise thing to do.
The law applies to misdemeanor and felony cases that were resolved after July 1, 2011. Defendants one year from the date of a guilty plea or conviction to pay off their court costs and fines and, if they don’t they are faced with loss of license. The revocations, thus, will begin after July 1, 2012. “Imagine the court having to have a hearing on every unpaid court cost case,” Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk Barry Pelizzari said. “It would be a burden that this system could not handle.”
“It’s going to be a huge mess,” Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Don Elledge predicted. He said he expects to discuss the issue with fellow jurists during a judicial conference in June.
Roane County Circuit Court Clerk Kim Nelson offers another view. She said she’s “thankful that the Legislature has provided court clerks with another enforcement tool in collecting court costs.”
…State Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, spearheaded passage of the law. His main reason: “There’s almost $1 billion statewide in unpaid fines and court costs,” he said.
Defendants facing the loss of their driver’s license will now have “an incentive to pay their fines,” he said.
Gotto said he was asked to introduce the legislation by representatives of the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk’s office. “They see what a huge problem this is.”
Gotto said the law allows defendants unable to pay off their court costs in full within a year to either seek a six-month extension or set up an installment plan for paying.
“There are all kinds of safeguards to keep from disenfranchising any group,” he said, “but it brings some real consequences to folks who just won’t pay.”
Several clerks said they have either already sent out notices to defendants owing court costs in cases resolved last July, alerting them about the new law, or plan to do so soon.
A new legislative report shows the severity of fines imposed by Tennessee courts has been eroded by inflation over the past 22 years, but some involved in the process say that really doesn’t make much difference.
“I’m not sure the amount of the fine is important anymore,” said Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols. “What difference does it make if the fine is $50 or $100 if it’s not going to be paid anyway?”
A law passed by the General Assembly earlier this year calls for revoking the driver’s license of anyone who does not pay his or her fines and court costs, starting next year. Whether that helps or hurts the situation is the subject of some debate.
But as things stand now, Nichols said, the fines imposed for convictions on charges ranging from traffic offenses to robberies are becoming increasingly meaningless. Data collected by the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee would appear to support that assertion.
In estimating the impact of the license revocation legislation, the committee staff reported that, based on 2009 figures, there were 328,000 persons statewide ordered to pay fines and court costs and that about 75 percent, or 246,000, did not pay them. Officials involved say the non-payment level has, if anything,, probably increased since then because of economic conditions.
In a new report released last week, the committee staff reviewed the impact of inflation on fines. The fine for most offenses were established by law in 1989, the year that the state’s criminal code was completely overhauled and updated.
For years, thousands of Tennesseans found guilty of various crimes have gotten away with not paying fines, court costs and litigation taxes, reports Andy Sher, with one estimate pegging the resulting revenue loss to state and local governments at $1 billion or more. But lawmakers hope the free ride is coming to a screeching halt under legislation (HB1877) passed in May by the General Assembly (but, according to the legislative website, not officially sent to the governor until June 6).
The bill requires the state Safety Department to revoke a person’s driver license if he or she is more than 12 months past due in paying penalties. Judges can extend payment deadlines for six months in hardship cases. If necessary, delinquent drivers can pay in installments if they can’t swing the average $500 in litigation taxes, court costs and fines in one fell swoop.
The bill takes effect July 2. Because it’s not retroactive, it won’t apply to old fines.
Yvette Martinez, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Haslam, said the governor will “review this bill as he does all the bills that come to his desk, but we expect that he’ll sign it.”‘ (Note: It’s pretty safe to predict the governor will sign any bill reaching his desk this year.)
House sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, said he brought the bill because “it’s been a long-known fact that there’s a lot of money across the state owed by criminals who have been convicted and don’t pay their court costs.
(Previous post HERE.)
Starting next month, Tennesseans guilty of traffic violations could pay higher fees, according to The City Paper.. In an effort to offset reductions made to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab budget, the General Assembly passed a measure that will require municipalities, starting July 1, to collect an additional $13.75 fee per traffic violation fine if those fines are paid prior to the court date or compliance date.
Those who plead not guilty and go to court, or miss the compliance date, will not face the additional fees.
It’s important to note, according to Circuit Court Clerk Richard Rooker, that the new fees are tacked on per traffic violation — i.e. speeding, registration, license violations etc. — and not per citation. A motorist can incur up to five violations on one citation, which would rack up $68.75 in additional fees alone.
Rooker’s office will be required to collect the fees in Davidson County. He said fee monies collected would be remitted to the state treasury and then passed on to the TBI.
Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the TBI, said revenue generated by the new fees would help offset a $2.3 million reduction in the bureau’s 2011-2012 fiscal budget.
A bill that calls for revoking the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay court costs or fines on time won approval of committees in both the House and Senate over objections of some Democrats on Tuesday.
Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, protested that HB1877 by Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, would “turn the Department of Safety into a collection agency” for courts. The department issues driver’s licenses.
Armstrong also contended enactment of the bill and loss of a driver’s license would leave some people unable to work and reduce the prospects of them paying off debts. The debtor would also have a new $65 fee to get a driver’s license reinstated, he said.
But Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, said Gotto had worked with him to develop an amendment assuring that people can work out a payment plan with court clerks. With that revision, Tindell said he could support the bill.
The bill’s “fiscal note,” prepared by legislative staff, estimates that state government will collect an extra $6 million per year in fines, court costs and litigation taxes with passage of the bill while local governments statewide will collectively also get an extra $6 million annually.
With Tindell’s support, the bill was approved by the House Finance Committee and is now ready for a floor vote in the House. The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved the measure Tuesday, moving it to the Senate Finance Committee.