Capitol politicians are patting themselves on the back for opening an escape hatch for millions of motorists whose licenses have been suspended for failure to pay past-due tickets.
A budget “trailer bill” gives drivers whose licenses were suspended due to nonpayment in 2012 or earlier a window to settle up with discounts – 50 percent for everyone, 80 percent for those on welfare or with low incomes – and easy payment plans.
That’s great, as far as it goes. Without an amnesty, it would be virtually impossible for authorities to collect much of the $10 billion in overdue fines, especially from the poor.
The new program encompasses much of what Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, had proposed. He may seek to expand the amnesty further to include those with suspended licenses since 2012.
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That would make sense as well, but what really would make sense is completely overhauling a system that’s become a monstrosity.
Califiornia’s basic fines (technically, “bails”) for hundreds of infractions are, for the most part, not excessive. But over the years, legislators and governors have piled surcharges on those fines, in many cases making them four or five times as large.
It’s been a lazy way to finance some programs and projects – such as courthouse construction – without tapping into the state’s general revenue, thus preserving money for the politicians’ sexier priorities.
Jerry Brown, in his second incarnation as governor, has become a critic of this wretched excess, vetoing higher traffic fines he considers excessive.
“I have found even a $50 ticket unpleasant enough,” he wrote in rejecting a fine increase three years ago. “Upping the fines may satisfy the punitive instincts of some, but I severely doubt that it will further reduce violations.”
In a top-to-bottom reform, it might make sense to raise the basic fines, which in some cases are as low as $25, while eliminating the oppressive surcharges. General tax revenue could make up the shortfall.
It might also make sense to emulate several European countries, which now calculate traffic fines in proportion to an errant driver’s income and wealth.
For example, one very wealthy Ferrari driver in Switzerland was hit with a $290,000 speeding ticket for driving 60 miles an hour in a village with a 30 mph limit.
California, unfortunately, has become a society with very distinct economic classes.
If fines are meant to deter dangerous and unlawful conduct they should have the same relative impact on a rich driver as they do on a poor one.
The newly adopted amnesty program takes that general approach, giving the poor bigger discounts on their overdue fines, and it should be at least on the table for the much-needed overhaul of the system.
Without such reform, the huge backlog of unpaid fines that the amnesty addresses will just pop up again, and again.