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Potential losses of licenses stay as penalty for debtors

PIERRE--Sen. Troy Heinert didn't get what he sought Thursday. Heinert, D-Mission, wanted the Legislature to repeal a sweeping penalty that was put into state law last year. People who owe money to state government but won't pay can lose their dri...

PIERRE-Sen. Troy Heinert didn't get what he sought Thursday.

Heinert, D-Mission, wanted the Legislature to repeal a sweeping penalty that was put into state law last year.

People who owe money to state government but won't pay can lose their driver licenses, vehicle registrations, hunting and fishing licenses, camping permits and park licenses.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 to kill his legislation, SB 123. The loss came when one of his co-sponsors, Sen. Jeff Monroe, R-Pierre, turned into an opponent.

But Heinert did get something of a promise.

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The penalties haven't been put into effect yet by the state Bureau of Administration. Commissioner Jeff Holden said the rules are still taking shape.

"It's not our intention to try to take away as many licenses as we can," Holden said.

Instead, the intention is the sanctions will be used "sparingly and only when necessary," according to Holden.

If issues arise, they can be discussed next legislative session, he said.

Sen. Teri Haverly, R-Rapid City, is a member of the advisory group working on the debt recovery center project.

"We do need to remember, there are victims who are owed money," Haverly said.

Once a payment plan is arranged, the debtors can still qualify for the licenses and permits, according to Haverly.

She described the goal as helping "struggling" South Dakotans avoid higher amounts of interest on their debt.

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Heinert said he expects many of the people to be affected will be the poor and "our Native citizens."

"I think this is a dangerous road to head down," he said.

Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, addressed Holden. "In our situation, the driver's license is really a dire need. You can't even get to a job without it," Bradford said.

Holden said he believes there is flexibility to put criteria in place for when to take action on a license.

"Part of the discussion is, should there be a minimum debt amount for that? I don't know what the amount would be," Holden said.

Holden called the penalties "valuable tools" to help collect the more than $55 million owed to state government and victims of crime.

Sen. Art Rusch, R-Vermillion, recalled his days as a circuit judge. He said he generally didn't impose large fines because the offenders frequently got into trouble, because they didn't have money.

But, Rusch said, child support and restitution also need to be considered. He said the uncollectible child support amounts could be "mind-boggling."

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"That's what amounted to the $55 million dollars owed," Rusch said. "I think we need to give this an opportunity to see if it works first."

Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, said the penalties need time to be in place so an informed decision can be made about their effectiveness.

"To change it before it gets started, I struggle to do that," Vehle said, adding that failure to pay debts put the burden on other citizens. "That's not fair to society, either," he said.

Sen. David Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, and Bradford were co-sponsors of the bill. They stuck with Heinert when the vote came.

"I'm uncomfortable with this tool," Novstrup said.

The committee chairman, Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said Heinert made good points, but the sanctions haven't been put into effect yet.

Tieszen said the debts, in some cases, are owed to poor people and victims of crime.

"This cuts both ways," Tieszen said. "I think there are plenty of ways to work this."

"I have enough confidence to at least give it a chance to work," he added.

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