By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Californians overdue in paying parking and traffic fines would get a break on escalating fees tacked on by the courts under a proposal introduced this week in the state legislature.
The bill by Democratic state Senator Robert Hertzberg of Los Angeles would allow the poorest Californians to pay only 20 percent of the fees due on their tickets, a major break as some quickly escalate to more than $800 if not paid promptly.
"You get a ticket for $65 and it turns into $800," Hertzberg said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "People have to choose between paying for meals for their family or paying a ticket and it just escalates."
Unable to pay, many drivers then lose their licenses, making them vulnerable to arrest for driving illegally, he said.
Hertzberg's plan would require the state to restore licenses to people whose driving privileges were suspended for failure to appear in court or failure to pay traffic fines for minor offenses if they pay the discounted amounts owed.
It would not eliminate the escalating fines, but would impose a sliding scale under which the poorest drivers would pay 20 percent of what they owe, and those who make more than twice the federal poverty guidelines, or $48,500 for a family of four, would pay 80 percent.
The plan creates a legal framework for a traffic fine amnesty proposal by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. It differs in one key area from the governor's proposal, however, offering the sliding scale instead of the 50 percent discount that Brown had wanted for all drivers, regardless of income level.
Hertzberg's bill was introduced in a general form in February, but the detailed language of its provisions was added in the Senate's Revenue and Taxation Committee on April 6.
It is part of a broader effort by Hertzberg, a former state Assembly speaker who represents the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, to introduce reforms to the state's tax system.
Rather than paying for law enforcement and judiciary programs from a fair and transparent tax code, he said, cities, counties and the state are relying on fees from motorists.
"It's out of control," Hertzberg said. "We've got to stop playing 'gotcha' with people."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Eric Beech)