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Legislators aim to offer relief from vehicle sticker fines

"It's a scam to make money because the state's broke," Maria Davy said Wednesday after paying a late fee. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

More and more drivers are looking at the state of Illinois with a stink eye as they get whacked — unfairly, they think — with $20 fines for not renewing their license plate stickers within 30 days of expiration.

And state legislators are feeling their glares.

Normally, motorists receive a friendly reminder by mail from Secretary of State Jesse White’s office to renew their license plate stickers. But because state agencies have been left to make do during a crippling budget impasse that has nearly shut off the state cash spigot, the reminders were scratched in October to save money on postage.

“It’s a scam to make money because the state’s broke,” Maria Davy said Wednesday after paying a late fee at a Secretary of State facility in the basement of the Thompson Center in the Loop. “The state doesn’t look out for its citizens,” said Davy, 55, of La Grange Highlands.

“We get ripped apart,” said a state employee about the sticker flap. “But I tell people, ‘We understand your frustration. We’re just the little people, though.’ ”

Another employee had no pity. “They teach you first thing in drivers’ ed to walk around the car and make sure everything is OK,” she said. Her views aligned with several motorists who think responsible adults should be able to handle the task.

Blowback, however, has spurred momentum for a bill seeking to temporarily end late renewal fees on expired plate stickers. The bill, which unanimously passed out of a House Transportation committee Wednesday, would last for two years or until the state passes a budget and motorists once again begin receiving notification in the mail.

Through Feb. 22 of this year, the state collected $2.7 million in fines from 136,101 motorists — nearly double the amount for the same period in the previous year collected from 63,147 drivers.

Rubbing salt in the open sore were tickets given by traffic enforcement aides and police officers for expired plates, which, for many motorists, was the unpleasant government notification that replaced the friendly letter.

A post on a wall at the Secretary of State facility at the Thompson Center advises drivers to check sticker expiration dates. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
A post on a wall at the Secretary of State facility at the Thompson Center advises drivers to check sticker expiration dates. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

The pending bill also addresses police citations. It states: “Any local, county, municipal, or state law enforcement agency” would not be able to issue tickets until 30 days after the expiration.

The issue struck a chord with State Rep. David Harris, a Republican who lives in Arlington Heights, when he received a few phone calls from constituents who were among hundreds of motorists who received tickets from the Schaumburg Police in January while parked at the Woodfield Mall.

“Police looked for expired registrations and slapped a lot of cars with tickets,” said Harris, a sponsor of the bill. “It just infuriated me. The police knew what the situation was and yet they went around and slapped all these tickets on cars.” According to the Daily Herald, 816 visitors to the mall received citations in January.

State Rep. Michael McAuliffe, a Republican from Chicago, said he received an earful from seniors while speaking at a community breakfast a few days ago. ” ‘ Why am I not getting a reminder in the mail? Why am I getting fined?’ they asked. I told everyone to go outside and check the sticker on their plates.”

Motorists can sign up for an email reminder, but the option favors the younger, more computer-savvy generation.

In Chicago, the number of tickets issued for expired plates or temporary registration in January of this year rose 14 percent compared with the same period last year — from 42,995 to 49,044, according to information provided by the Chicago Department of Revenue.

The spike would not surprise Brent Krambeck, who received a ticket for expired plates last week for $60 while parked in Lincoln Park. “The city is so prompt when it comes to fines,” said Krambeck, a 44-year-old banker. “Do I shrug it off? Yes. I’d like to fight the system. But in this case, it’s hard.”

State Rep. Jaime Andrade, a Democrat from Chicago who is chief sponsor of the proposed bill, said the soonest it could become law is April or May — if everything goes smoothly. It doesn’t help that the state assembly goes on break Friday and doesn’t return until April 4.

Andrade said he thinks there is enough bipartisan support to get the bill to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk.

Rauner’s office did not respond to messages Wednesday seeking comment on whether he supports the bill.

“I have not been in contact with the governor’s office,” Andrade said. “But I will be reaching out to ask for his support.”

The bill does not include any measure to reimburse people who’ve already paid the state fine.

“I wish there was,” Andrade said. “But I’m being realistic. I don’t see the ability for it to pass. I just don’t see that the comptroller would have the money to give back $2.7 million, and by that time the number would probably be well over $3 million.”

“But who knows, maybe the governor will surprise us and say ‘We’ll give the money back.’ He can do that,” Andrade said.

The Secretary of State’s office “strongly favors” the bill, said spokesman Dave Druker, who noted that the money collected for late renewal goes to the state’s general fund coffers.

However, scratching the reminder letter was prudent, Druker said, because it saved $450,000 a month and left the office with enough money to mail out essential automobile titles, license plates and stickers.

“The logical thing to do was cut the notice, which was a courtesy on the office’s part,” Druker said. “We wish the state had a budget and it didn’t have to come down to this.”