Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Romano: Driver's license bill is a simple fix that will make Floridians' lives better

Guns get the bigger spotlight. Fracking, too.

They make for livelier debates and more dramatic sound bites. But when it comes to an idea that can immediately change lives for the better, there might not be a more important piece of legislation than a simple bill correcting a horrible driver's license policy in Florida.

And it's critically important that the state House follows the Senate's lead and begins moving it through committees before it gets too late in the session.

Here's what we're talking about:

Somewhere along the line, Florida officials thought it was ideal to punish minor law-breakers by suspending their licenses. This would include graffiti artists. Or someone failing to pay a traffic fine. Or a kid not going to school. Or a bad-check writer.

Seems reasonable, right? A minor punishment for a minor infraction.

Except suspending a license is anything but minor. It can change the entire dynamic of a life. And it can turn a small problem into a much larger problem that affects us all.

"The practical impact of this is huge," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "It affects a person's ability to get and keep a job. To get a kid back and forth to school. It takes away a major part of a person's identity and sense of worth in society.

"Just something as basic as having a license to use as a form of ID, which is a bigger part of our world than ever before."

The problems don't stop there. Someone who drives with a suspended license is now in danger of arrest. That costs taxpayer money. It can also lead to a criminal record, which makes it harder to get a job. And people who drive with suspended licenses don't have auto insurance, which puts everyone else at risk.

Does that sound like a sensible solution for not paying a traffic fine?

The Senate seems to understand this and unanimously passed a bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, in a committee hearing on Wednesday.

Rouson has a bill (HB 207) that is identical to Brandes' (SB 7046), but the House hasn't exactly fast-tracked it. So what could possibly be the objection?

There is a fiscal component to this bill that might make some bureaucrats uneasy. The proposed legislation allows low-income offenders to pay off fines with community service. This would, understandably, lead to less income for county clerks.

It's a legitimate issue to bring up, but not a compelling reason to continue the policy. In the grand scheme of things, we'll save more money by keeping people employed and out of the court system. And if the state has to initially cough up funds to make up the difference for county clerks, then consider it a sound investment.

Last summer, the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg held a driver's license reinstatement day that drew more than 1,000 people.

"You should have seen the tears, the looks of gratitude," Rouson said. "One lady told me she paid $50 for a babysitter and caught two buses to get there because she hadn't had a license for six years. This can change lives."

This isn't a difficult fix. And it's barely worth debating. It's not a question of being soft on crime, it's a matter of using our resources wisely. Jeopardizing a person's future over a relatively minor infraction is both shameful and wasteful.

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