SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — In the latest twist in Illinois' financial crisis, the state is getting a windfall of $1.2 million — and growing — thanks to its decision to stop mailing reminders to motorists to renew their license plate stickers.
The income from the $20 late fines has more than doubled for the first two months of this year, according to figures provided to The Associated Press by the secretary of state's office, which collects the fines. Drivers paid more than $2.7 million in fines from Jan. 1 through Feb. 22. Last year, the state collected about $1.5 million in fines for those two months.
The secretary of state's office stopped mailing renewal reminders in October as a way to save an estimated $450,000 a month on postage during the state's budget stalemate, which has gone on since July 1.
Because of a 30-day grace period, the first fines for those who didn't get reminders were levied in January. The agency is required to fine people who fail to renew their plate stickers after the grace period expires, and the money goes into the state's general revenue fund.
"I know Illinois is broke, beyond broke, so I'm sure they're trying all these underhanded ways to get money out of people," said 32-year-old Evan Larson, a Woodstock resident who had to pay up.
The number of people who've already been fined this year illustrates just how much Illinois residents depend on the government for routine tasks. Last year, 63,147 people were fined for late renewals from January through Feb. 22. This year, it was 136,101 during the same span.
Democrats who control the Legislature and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner are in the middle of an epic standoff over the budget, which stems from their failure to agree on how to finalize a spending plan that should've taken effect July 1. As a result, government agencies have been squeezed without support from the state to pay for basic necessities like utilities.
"We were forced to make the difficult but necessary decision to suspend mailing courtesy reminder notices to save on postage because of the budget impasse," agency spokesman Henry Haupt said.
Haupt added that the office prioritized mailing the actual plate stickers, as well as vehicle titles, plates, and other paperwork for businesses.
The fines behind the sudden windfall have irritated both motorists and some lawmakers. One Democratic legislator told the AP that the state should consider returning the money to motorists.
"They shouldn't have to be penalized for our ineptitude," said Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Woodstock who is co-sponsoring legislation to suspend the late fines until the state has a budget and renewal reminders can continue.
Some car owners who were stuck paying the tardy fees said they were angry at the state, while others shook their heads at how much they relied on the mailed reminders.
"I was aggravated more than anything else. $20 is $20. It's not going to kill me," said Leon Fields, a 68-year-old retired Chicago Transit Authority manager who lives in Glenwood. "As far the government, one of the things they're supposed to do is keep people informed."
Haupt says the secretary of state's office supports the legislation to suspend the late fines.
The proposal will also require police issue warnings rather than tickets when they see a car with an expired plate, which is another consequence that motorists face for being late with their renewals.
In the village of Schaumburg, 816 people received $50 tickets in January for having expired plates, according to an investigation by the (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald — a 23 percent jump from January last year.
This version of the story corrects hometowns of Larson in 5th paragraph and Fields in 13th paragraph and makes clear that the estimated savings on postage are $450,000 a month.