New law allows unpaid court fines to come out of tax refunds

Come 2015, Georgians who owe fines to any state or local court system may find a chunk taken out of their Georgia income tax returns.

A new law, Georgia House Bill 1000, lets court fines be deducted from state tax refunds. Officials aren’t sure how much money it might bring in, but other states have seen substantial collections from similar programs, said Mike Cuccaro, assistant director for the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts.

His office lacks the state-level data to calculate how many court fines are owed in Georgia, and other states’ laws allow for collection of debts other than those owed to courts, Cuccaro said.

“It’s very tough to do an apples-to-apples comparison,” he said.

Still, states with limitations similar to the Georgia law get about $2 million per year, and reviews by the Georgia Municipal Association and Association County Commissioners of Georgia back that general figure, Cuccaro said.

“Our information and their information said it does look like we can have a positive effect on the payment of fines and fees if we do this,” he said.

Macon-Bibb County Municipal Court Director Terry Bizzell is working on a report of what’s owed to his office, and he is reviewing how the law could apply here, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said via email.

“He has not, as of yet, been provided guidance on implementation,” Floore said.

Clint Mueller, ACCG legislative director for revenue and finance, said his organization is working with Cuccaro’s office and the Georgia Department of Revenue to set up a system by the Jan. 1 effective date. It probably will be a pilot program in a few locations to start with, Muel­ler said.

Ultimately there likely will be a “clearinghouse” between local courts and the Department of Revenue, matching debtors to eligible tax refunds, he said. The tax refund money that’s taken by that method -- referred to as “debt offset” -- would be deposited in local governments’ sales tax accounts, Mueller said.

The law, sponsored in the House by three Republicans and two Democrats, was signed by Gov. Nathan Deal on April 14. It applies to debts of more than $25 but can’t be used to collect overdue license fees or other amounts owed to local government.

“This only allows it to be for court-related debt, traffic fines, that sort of thing,” Mueller said. And the debts have to be at least 90 days old, with the debtor matched to a Social Security number, he said.

“This is not recent debt. This is debt that’s been out there for a while,” Mueller said. “In a lot of debt there is no Social Security information, so you can’t use debt offset for those.”

The people who owe old debt have to be notified in advance and will be able to appeal, he said.

Cuccaro’s office worked with ACCG on getting the law passed, and Georgia cities and counties are calling with interest in the possibilities.

In general, Mueller said, it’s one more possible way to collect “a lot of low-dollar type of debt” that otherwise might cost more in effort than it is worth.

Courts have to have money to operate, and that has to come from somewhere -- if not from fines collected, then from more taxes, Mueller said. The new law helps keep the need for subsidies down.

“The more that goes uncollected, the more we have to charge everybody else,” he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.