Tens of thousands of South Dakotans have had their privileges to hunt, fish, or drive in the state suspended since 2017 because they owe money to government agencies for unpaid fines, fees or even college tuition, but often the people hardest hit by state debt collection efforts are low-income residents who are the least able to pay up. South Dakota News Watch Reporter Nick Lowrey has the story.

During the last fiscal year, more than three thousand South Dakotans were told they’d lose their driver’s licenses and that they’d be barred from renewing their vehicle’s license plates unless they paid up on debts owed to the state government. The license and registration suspensions were requested by the state’s Debt Obligation Recovery Center as part of its efforts to collect around $80 million owed to government agencies. As part of those same efforts, about 15,000 more people were told they’d be barred from buying a hunting or fishing license in the state. Under a state law passed in 2015, the ORC can bar anyone who owes $50 or more to a government agency from buying hunting license, state park entrance license, fishing licenses or make state park camping reservation. Driver’s licenses and annual vehicle registrations are supposed to be suspended if the debt is greater than $1,000. State officials say the license and vehicle registration suspensions are a necessary tool to collect more than $80 million owed to state agencies and departments for debts due to outstanding fees, fines and unpaid taxes. Over the three years that the ORC has been operating, it has collected about $8.7 million worth of debt. Scott Bollinger, commissioner of the state Bureau of Administration, said debt collection for the Board of Regents, one of the top recipients of ORC debt collections, can help keep down the price of tuition at public universities. Still, many who have faced ORC enforcement actions are among the state’s poorest residents and struggle to repay their debts. Those residents can least afford to lose the right to drive legally said Libby Skarin, policy director for American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. She said the debt collection system is biased against poor people who lose privileges because they can’t afford to pay a debt they owe to their own government.