Tuesday night, the House Finance Committee passed a bill (H-6213A) that seeks to expand the denial of vehicle registration to individuals who may have outstanding unpaid interest or penalties on fines owed to a city or town, rather than only revoking it for the amount of the fines themselves owed to the municipality.
Legislation like this, making it easier for people to lose their licenses or registration based on financial debts, has been criticized all over the country for its problematic and counterproductive effects on poor Americans. Driving without a registered vehicle leads to substantial penalties or even a revoked license, which simply worsens the person’s financial issues and hardships. This in itself is challenging since the restrictions would deny the person the ability to drive to work, school, or any other related activity making them less able to meet their monetary obligations.
While the sponsor of the bill, Representative Chris Blazejewski, may have introduced this bill on behalf of the City of Providence with good intent, as we often see, particularly in the political and legislative sphere, intent ≠ impact. We have recently seen an increasingly draconian attitude towards poverty and a severity in the treatment of our neighbors, whether it is from criminalizing panhandling or driving the homeless out from public areas where they smoke. Increasing fees and penalties coupled with a decrease in actual beneficial services has led to a regime of fear for the people on the margins.
The hard economics of poverty means that people who have to exist on the ragged edge find themselves making choices. Hard choices. Representative Carlos Tobon, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, spoke to me openly about his personal experience at times having to choose food over rent. This lived experience is one that is shared by so many and it is bills like this that make this choice so much harder. A family can quickly find themselves falling behind on a ticket or a summons if they unable to go to court due to lack of childcare, a flexible job schedule, or paid sick days. In short: life. For many Rhode Islanders, paying a fine becomes a luxury when their children are hungry and rent is due.
We hope the legislature will do the right thing and reject this bill.