Responding to a recent uproar, a Louisiana House panel Tuesday approved a bill that would allow motorists with lapsed auto insurance to pay their debts in installments and keep their driver’s license.

The measure, House Bill 245, breezed through the House Transportation Committee and is sponsored by freshman state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge.

It next faces action in the full House.

The legislation stems from controversy last year when motorists were notified of fines for failing to have current auto insurance.

Earlier this year, the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles had collected $22.5 million of an estimated $444 million owed the state.

However, the notifications triggered controversy and complaints, including charges of citizens being mistakenly targeted and heavy-handed debt collection methods.

Marcelle told the committee her bill is designed to let motorists set up payment plans and keep their driver’s license during the repayment period.

Under current rules, motorists can arrange to make payments to the state but face the loss of driving rights until the debt is paid.

Exactly how many motorists are affected and what they owe is unclear.

The bill would allow payment plans of up to 60 months for fines of $5,000 or more, which are thought to make up 10 percent or less of the total.

Payments would have to be made electronically using a bank draft or credit or debit card.

Installment agreements could be canceled for failure to make payments for 60 days.

Panel members embraced the bill — it passed without objection — and said action is needed amid widespread complaints from constituents.

“Like many legislators, I have been overwhelmed by citizens asking us to do something,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Hall, D-Alexandria.

Hall said that, in one case, a woman’s debt mounted after she became incapacitated.

The bill would offer relief for such cases, he said.

Marcelle echoed Hall’s comments.

“Many of us got the same calls,” she said.

OMV Commissioner Karen St. Germain said in an interview after the meeting that some motorists face huge bills compared with what they originally owed.

“It goes anywhere from $650, $625 to $9,000, $10,000 depending on the problems they had,” St. Germain said.

She said OMV wants to be able to offer motorists installment plans similar to how they buy furniture from retailers.

A second measure that would cap fines linked to the loss of driving privileges — House Bill 1063 — was voluntarily shelved amid controversy.

State Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, sponsor of the bill, said a $2,500 cap is needed because motorists face fines of up to $20,000 for lapsed auto insurance.

“A lot of people came to me and said, ‘We never got a notice because we moved,’ ” Carter told the committee.

“All I want to do is help the working people of the state to keep their jobs,” he said. “It could happen to any of us.”

Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette and vice chairman of the committee, said motorists need to know there is a price for going without vehicle insurance.

“There has to be some consequences for people who fail to comply,” said Landry, former superintendent of the State Police.

St. Germain said a motorist would have to have his or her insurance suspended and reinstated 30 times to accumulate a $20,000 fine.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.

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