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Court costs money.

To help make it go, courts charge fees, fines, taxes and jail costs to people who file suit or appear before judges.

Many times, those people can't afford to pay off those costs. Outstanding payments can stack up and stretch on for years.

"Sometimes you're chasing after amounts that are not going to be very collectible," Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler said.

A bill that's set to go before the General Assembly today aims to make that collection easier. Co-sponsored by Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, House Bill 52, which in the Senate is known as Senate Bill 19, would allow criminal or general sessions court clerks to accept a partial lump-sum payment of outstanding court costs.

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State Rep. Mike Carter talks about his plans during the Times Free Press sponsored Legislative Roundtable at the newspaper in this Jan. 6 2015, photo.
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"It makes a lot of difference if you're actually trying to collect some of these debts," Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean said. "You don't have to focus on the ones that you probably aren't going to collect anyway."

If passed, the bill will place a few caveats on those payments.

First, the payment amount must be equal to or greater than 50 percent of the original payment ordered by a judge on a given case. Those payments are usually made to pay off court costs, litigation taxes or fines due to the court.

Present law differs in the order in which those monies are paid. The clerk can retain 50 percent, and the remaining balances are credited first toward payment of litigation taxes, then toward payment of costs, then toward payment of a fine.

Second, the agreed-upon amount must be approved by a judge, since orders for payment originate in their courts.

Finally, the new rules would make lump-sum payments possible only if the individuals had been in default for five years. Default status is granted after the individual has been behind on payments for six months, Dean said.

"If a debt is over 5 years old, chances are you're not going to collect it," Dean said.

House Bill 52 is on the legislature's regular calendar for today after passing unopposed through the House Civil Justice and Ways and Means Committees. The Senate Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to discuss the bill Tuesday afternoon but no result was available.

Behler said he'll reserve judgment on the bill until he's seen the final version, but in general, he said, it will probably help get old debt "off the books."

"I think anything that will help you to collect something from past due accounts is going to be helpful," Behler said.

Other business

In other state action Tuesday:

* A bill that originally sought to require ultrasound images be shown or described to women seeking abortions in Tennessee was withdrawn for the year and reset for the House Health Subcommittee's first meeting of 2016.

* Republican Gov. Bill Haslam withdrew his effort to remove longevity bonuses for current state employees in the face of legislative opposition. He had proposed to fold the annual bonuses -- $100 for each year of service up to a maximum of $3,000 into state workers' salaries, halt future increases and use the savings to fund merit raises based on employee evaluations. Haslam now only wants to apply the change to new workers hired by the state.

In the Georgia General Assembly

* The Georgia Senate voted 54-0 to pass a bill Tuesday requiring insurers to offer $30,000 of coverage for treating autism in children. The bill has been more than two years in the making.

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State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said the bill "celebrates hope" and represents a "milestone" in fighting what he described as an epidemic of the condition.

* The House approved a constitutional amendment charging strip clubs to provide services for victims of child sexual abuse, 151-18. The charge would be $5,000 or 1 percent of revenue on adult entertainment businesses, whichever is greater.

"It's a tax; it's a fee; it's a requirement that they participate in remediating the cancer and the problem they provide in your community and mine and in our state," said Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold.

* The Georgia Senate passed a bill that grants 5 percent pay raises to appellate level judges, district attorneys, public defenders and superior court judges.

* Uber and other ride sharing companies may have passed their last legislative roadblock with the 42-4 passage of a Georgia Senate bill mandating insurance minimums for drivers and the firms they drive for. Republican Sen. Charlie Bethel of Dalton said Uber and similar technology-based ride sharing firms, must provide $1 million in primary insurance that goes into effect when an agreement is made between driver and passenger.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.

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