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Jeff Brandes driver’s license suspension reform bill passes unanimously in committee

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A bill that would that would reform the driver’s license and revocation process in Florida passed unanimously Thursday in the Senate Transportation Commission.

The legislation (SB 7046) sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes would revise requirements relating to the payment of court-related fines or other monetary penalties, fees, charges, and costs. It would also require traffic citation forms to include certain language relating to payment of a penalty and require a court to inquire regarding a person’s ability to pay at the time a certain civil penalty is ordered.

Brandes proposed the bill after reading reports detailing the more than 1.2 million driver’s license suspensions occurring annually in Florida.

Committee members approved several amendments proposed by Brandes, including a provision that would reduce the suspension of a motorist convicted of possessing, selling or trafficking in controlled substances from a year to six months.

The Florida Association of County Clerks supports the legislation, but Fred Baggett, an attorney with the group, says that in its current form, the bill will have a “significant fiscal impact” on the operations of the clerks offices throughout the state.

Baggett says that over the past month his staff had conducted an in-depth review of the clerks operations to determine how much funding the could lose from the reduction in fines that motorists pay for driving with a suspended license. He said if there was a reduction of 15 percent of fines, that would amount to a loss of $24 million. If it was as much as 50 percent reduction, that total would go up to $82 million.

“The reduction of the suspension process … is very possibly very good public policy,” Baggett told Milton Republican Sen. Greg Evers. “Our only issue is how to accommodate the loss of revenue and continue to operate the office at a level that the people of Florida to serve.”

“That’s a pretty hard hit from $82 million,” Evers said.

Pasco County GOP Sen. Wilton Simpson agreed that the clerks funding concerns are legitimate, and said that legislators need to find alternative ways for them to not lose revenue without having to do it by charging fines.

Brandes said the dramatic financial losses by the clerks offices demonstrated that the clerks offices have been funded in the past “on the backs of people who can least afford it, and I think that’s where we need to discuss changing the entire model of the clerks, and I think that bill highlights that …”

Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson applauded Brandes for introducing the legislation. She said that in conjunction with the judicial system and the clerks offices, she recently hosted a day for people to get their suspended driver’s licenses reinstated, and said over 1,000 people preregistered for the event, clearly showing the need for such a bill.

“You have people who can’t drive themselves to a doctor, or loved one to a doctor, they can’t drive their children to school or pick them up from school, they can’t drive to work, they can’t drive to look for work, they can’t drive to church, so it’s a major problem,” she said.

Tampa Bay area Reps. Dana Young and Darryl Rouson have held similar events in recent months, with similar results in terms of public participation.

It’s been reported that in the Tampa Bay area alone, nearly 300,000 residents have had their licenses suspended or revoked, most of them because of failure to pay fines.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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