Dean Donald Tobin Advocates for Reform to Tax Debt Penalties in Annapolis

March 26, 2019

Donald Tobin, Dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, is using his expertise as a tax attorney to advocate for reform to Maryland law that will help combat the cycle of poverty.

Tobin visited the Maryland State House in Annapolis as a guest of Maryland House of Delegates member Samuel Rosenberg to offer testimony on House Bill 241, which provides that the State will not place a hold on a person's driver's license or registration if that person's income is below 200% of the poverty rate.

Currently, Maryland citizens with outstanding tax debts are prohibited from renewing their driver’s license or vehicle registration. House Bill 241 would disallow that practice for tax debts totaling less than $10,000 and for residents with a household income below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Laws like the one currently established in Maryland have faced increased scrutiny in recent years for their role in the criminalization of poverty. In his written testimony, Tobin explains: “Our system punishes people, not just because they have a tax debt, but also because they do not have the money to pay the debt.  It punishes people for their poverty and creates a downward economic spiral that forces people further into poverty.  The law also has the potential to criminalize poverty because people may drive out of necessity, risking criminal charges for driving with an expired license or registration.”

Tobin offered several hypothetical situations highlighting the nearly impossible position a lower-income resident is placed under the current system. In these plausible scenarios, Tobin shows how an unpaid tax debt resulting in an individual being unable to renew their registration or driver’s license can lead to increasingly negative health, financial, occupational, and other outcomes that may even end up costing that state more than the original tax debt.

Also testifying on behalf of House Bill 241 was Holly Mirabella ’17, a Policy Manager at the CASH (Creating Assets, Savings, and Hope) Campaign of Maryland. Mirabella has frequently seen first-hand the incredibly damaging effect of being unable to legally drive because of a tax debt as a result of her work at the CASH Campaign of Maryland. She echoed Tobin’s sentiments surrounding the impossible situation faced by Maryland residents stating, “They require access to a motor vehicle in order to get to work, child care, medical care, and to reach other basic necessities … What happens when we restrict the access to a motor vehicle, people often have to turn to public assistance and they are less likely to pay back their tax debt. So it is actually a counterintuitive approach to get people to meet their tax burdens.”

Tobin concluded his written testimony by exhorting the Maryland House Environment and Transportation Committee to adopt the bill. “The days of debtor prisons are long since passed, but we continue to have legacy policies that disproportionately impact low-income individuals.  I understand the legislature is committed to examining our State’s existing laws and examining those provisions that have negative economic consequence to low-income hard-working Marylanders.  I suggest to you that Maryland’s current practice involving driver’s license and registration holds disproportionately impacts the most economically vulnerable in our society.  I urge the committee to reform the current law, stop the cycle of poverty created by existing law, and provide some relief to low-income Marylanders who are struggling because of our existing policy. 

Footage of the hearing on House Bill 241 can be found here.