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Editorial: Driver's licenses an effective lever against tax cheats

Approved in March, an initiative to suspend the

Approved in March, an initiative to suspend the driver’s licenses of New Yorkers who owe more than $10,000 in back taxes will begin in early August 2013. Credit: Fotolia

New York State's delinquent taxpayers could soon be kicked off the very roads they haven't paid to maintain.

The tax department began sending 60-day warnings to 16,000 residents who owe more than $10,000 in back taxes, threatening to suspend their driver's licenses unless they fork over the cash. If they don't start paying up within that period, the Department of Motor Vehicles will press the pedal to the metal in a letter initiating a 15-day countdown until they lose driving privileges.

The initiative -- proposed in January as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's budget -- is a smart and direct way to go after those who haven't paid thousands, and in some cases millions, owed to the state. Offenders whose licenses are suspended can get a reprieve by applying for restricted permits allowing commutes to and from work. And the tax department will arrange payment plans for tax dodgers who can't pay their full debts up front.

This enforcement mechanism is both a deterrent for future delinquents and a small revenue stream in a time when the state government is scrounging up every bit of loose change it can find. The governor's office estimates the threat of suspending licenses could generate $26 million this year and $6 million annually thereafter. Modeled after the state's initiative to suspend licenses of those late in paying child support, the plan already has a tested blueprint.

David Devol and William Norton -- principals of a Port Washington yacht broker who allegedly owe about $4.5 million each, the highest totals on Long Island -- can probably afford a chauffeur. Nonetheless, barring them from the roads deals a body blow to their personal mobility.

Scofflaws facing that fate account for only a slice of New York's tax debtors, who reneged on their end of the social contract by collectively robbing the state of $1.1 billion. They're cheating the tax man, sure. But more important, they're cheating their fellow New Yorkers.