Transportation officials: Changing driver’s license rules could risk federal money

JACKSON, Miss. — Transportation officials said Tuesday that Mississippi could lose millions of federal dollars because of a bill affecting the suspension of driver’s licenses.

Senators said they will try to address those concerns and avoid the problem. House Bill 1352 seeks to ease some penalties for people accused or convicted of nonviolent crimes, and to create a smoother process for wiping some crimes from a person’s record.

The bill would prohibit the state from revoking a driver’s license simply because a person fails to pay fines. The state also would no longer suspend a driver’s license for a drug charge that is not related to operating a vehicle.

Mississippi Department of Transportation director Melinda McGrath and department attorney Judy Martin appeared Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary A Committee. Martin said the federal government has a mandatory six-month driver’s license suspension for drug offenses. She said she thinks the bill could put the state out of compliance, risking the loss of $36.5 million a year in federal transportation money.

Martin also said a portion of the bill dealing with commercial driver’s licenses could put Mississippi at risk of losing $14 million the first year and $28 million a year after that.

Republican Sen. David Parker of Olive Branch tried unsuccessfully to kill the bill during the committee meeting. He said he has “extreme concerns” that it would allow people to end a driver’s license suspension too soon after being charged with drunken driving. He spoke of some girls in north Mississippi who were killed years ago by a man with multiple drunken driving charges.

Democratic Sen. Juan Barnett of Heidelberg said the bill attempts to help people who need “a second chance at life” after being convicted of nonviolent crimes. The bill moves to the full Senate for more debate, and is likely to then head into a final round of negotiations between the House and Senate.

“We are smart enough and we are more than capable to make good legislation out of this,” Barnett said.

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