Friday, June 19, 2009

Department of "Public Safety" or "Collections"?

According to a reader who attended, at yesterday's meeting of the Public Safety Commission there was a lengthy discussion, prompted by Commissioner Carin Barth, of the Orwellian-named "Driver Responsibility" program. Rather than criticize the draconian, regressive nature of the fee, though, which was created during the 2003 budget crisis expressly as an alternative to property tax hikes, Commissioner Barth wanted to know why there was only a 30% collection rate. (For the current fiscal year, the board was told, DPS has collected $170 million.)

That's easy enough: This is an administrative fee piled on top of the already-steep criminal penalties for a no-insurance ticket or DWI stop. It's quite high and stretches out over three years, in some cases at a cost of $1,000 per year or more. In the case of no-insurance, in particular, the main reason people aren't insured is usually cost, not criminal malice. So piling on needless extra cost actually reduces the likelihood drivers can afford insurance and arguably reduces public safety. After a certain point, there is a diminishing return on the effectiveness of high fines and this fee long ago crossed that threshold.

All of the commissioners expressed dissatisfaction with the collection rate, but none expressed any reservations about the program itself -- though they did note that several legislators are not supportive of the program.

Drivers License Division Chief Judy Brown noted that the program was modeled after New Jersey's ("why we would want to emulate ANYTHING about New Jersey is anathema to me," my informant intones as an aside) -- and she said the NJ program had tools at its disposal which are not available to the DPS, particularly the ability to put liens on people's homes and to garnish their wages. (!) "Don't be surprised if DPS seeks statutory authority for this next session," I was told.

The vendor in charge of collections makes automated calls to non-payers and sends out dunning letters on the Department's letterhead. (Chief of Audit & Inspection Farrell Walker committed a gaffe of sorts when he referred to these as "annoyance calls" and was gently upbraided for it by Commissioner John Steen.) The Commission appears to favor increasing the frequency of the "annoyance calls" and dunning letters, and reporting non-payers to the credit bureaus. In fact, there's some sentiment for wanting to review the contractor's performance. Chairman Allan Polunsky specifically asked staff whether there is a termination clause in the contract. The contractor will be summoned to attend the next PSC meeting.

It sounds like the PSC is focused on the wrong problem regarding driver responsibility fees. I'm surprised to hear commissioners weren't instead discussing the new indigency program mandated by the 81st Legislature in DPS's Sunset bill. Instead they're focused on mulcting more money from already-punished Texans who can't afford it or else busting them with the credit agencies. A little tone-deaf to the zeitgeist of the times, don't you think?

Anyone who'd like to educate the PSC about the Driver Responsibility program may want to mark their calendars for the third Thursday in July when the commission meets again.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Driver Responsibility Program has to be one of the most ill-concieved initiatives ever. Some areas now have special court dockets for persons charged with Driving With License Invalid, the law violation one commits by driving without having paid the surcharge. If they don't pay, they are routinely sentenced to jail time at county, not state expense. First time DWI offenders have large financial obligations what with fines, court costs and probation fees. They don't pay the DRP surcharge, they have to drive to work, they get arrested for DWLS, get jail time, can't work, and on and on. It's a whirlpool that's almost impossible for many to escape unless you're named Krusee.

Charlie O said...

This program bolsters my belief that most cops are really revenue agents for the state, not crime fighters or guardians of the public safety.

Don Dickson said...

Charlie O, you've seen me on this blog defend the DPS against charges that they are just handing out tickets to collect revenues. I don't believe that for a moment, though I have complained many times over the years of actual and perceived quotas in isolated circumstances.

But in this completely different context, I agree with you. I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of the state police being bill collectors. These surcharges are civil, not criminal. But your failure to pay them makes you a criminal.

We don't imprison people for debt. At least that's what I thought. I have no quarrel with the cops giving you a "hard copy" for 70/55 or for not having your insurance card like you're supposed to. But I think it's kinda unseemly to have the state police collecting a civil "surcharge" -- and a burdensome one at that -- that is scarely different than any other kind of tax designed to create some incentive or disincentive for any other kind of behavior.

I should make clear here that I am expressing my personal views and not those of any association or client I represent. I also don't intend for my comments to be read as a criticism of the PSC or anyone at DPS. They have been given responsibility for implementing and administering this program by our Legislature. They have a duty to do it the best they can. If the Legislature were to shut down the program, well, then, everyone could go on to doing something else.

I'm not aware that this program has had any measurable favorable impact on the prevalence of DWI and FTMFR in Texas...if anyone has stats on that I'd be interested to hear of them.

Anonymous said...

Don,

Too bad the troopers association doesn't consider it important enough to address it with the state legislature. By ignoring it's consequences they are supporting it.:~)

Don Dickson said...

Anon, I don't know the Association's position on this, or if it even has a position on this. I'm not even confident that any Association member has anything to do with the program. My clientele are the non-supervisory uniforms, not the bill collectors.

BTW, I just read a summary of yesterday's meeting prepared by another attendee, and apparently DLD Chief Judy Brown announced her retirement at yesterday's meeting.

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Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don, as far as the PSC being required to administer the program created by the Lege, that's true as far as it goes. But at yesterday's meeting, it's not like they were focused on the new legislative requirement to create an indigency program; they wanted to squeeze out the maximum revenue without regard for the program's flaws. Yes, the Lege created the darn thing, but the Lege also mandated the indigency program!

It should also be mentioned that EXPANDING the fee to include other offenses was an item on the PSC's legislative wish list, so they have some culpability for promoting the thing, too.

The PSC must adopt rules for the indigency program soon, so maybe that'd be a better focus for their attention than dressing down a vendor for their predictable inability to draw blood from a stone.

Sorry to hear Judy's leaving, and I hope it's on her own terms. Col. Davis' old crew is getting pretty thin among the top ranks over there.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Female- no prior record- DWI-first offender as of October 2003 - (ONE month after the surcharge law went into effect). A law So new, that my DWI lawyer and my Court Appointed Probation Officer felt it un-important to inform or educate me as to what I was facing for the next 3 years @ $1040.00 per year. With 1 month remaining of my 2 year sentence. I was stopped 2 blocks from my home for a broken tail light, Arrested - Johnny ON THE SPOT for DWLS, that I had no knowledge of. My vehicle was still impounded even being 2 blocks from my residence. As a result, REVOKED my Probation due to the arrest, added another year to the sentence and the *BS just goes on .... I better stop now !!!!

Anonymous said...

I think this is very interesting, I am extremely excited about the DPS getting more tools at its disposal. Liens and garnishments? That's the least they deserve.

If the program works in New Jersey let's try it here. Time for the freeloading 25% to get the message!

Boyness said...

But Grits, Don Dickson promised all of us on another post that DPS doesn't care about revenue. He and Allen Polunsky better get together on this.

Anonymous said...

This is just another example of Polunsky overreaching. I am sure that with the contract being terminated, it will then be given to one of the cronies of the Gov or Polunsky. I would like to see what kind of stock Polunsky has in Deloitte because there has been a lot of money being shoveled their way to get their strawman study to point at so the Gov's cronies could be put in place to replace the crew that bucked the Gov last legislature......

Anonymous said...

Where do the collected fees go? Are they earmarked for spending in a specific area?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Are they earmarked for spending in a specific area?"

49.5% goes to state general revenue, 49.5% to the hospitals' trauma care fund, and DPS gets 1% for administering it.

Anonymous said...

Half of the fees go to fund trauma centers. I believe that most of the testimony in support of keeping the fees came from that interest group.

The other half of the fees goes into a fund for the future Trans-Texas Corridor. I believe the legislation pertaining to the Corridor and these fees were passed in the same session.

This is obviously no more than a bad driver TAX which contributes to more unlicensed, and therefore, more uninsured drivers to the detriment of everyone. A terrible way to generate monies veiled as punitive with the dubious goal of public safety.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Grits, I did not see your post until after I posted my misinformation. Why did I think it was connected to the Trans-Texas thing? Was it at one time?

Also of interest to those who may be new to the topic may be the fact that the person who originally proposed this DRS was himself a few years later arrested for DWI. Karma?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:39, according to the HHS Code 780.002: which created the trauma fund account "The comptroller shall deposit 49.5 percent of the money received under [the DRP program] to the credit of the account established under this chapter and 49.5 percent of the money to the general revenue fund."

Aria said...

I believe that most of the testimony in support of keeping the fees came from that interest group.The other half of the fees goes into a fund for the future Trans-Texas Corridor. I believe the legislation pertaining to the Corridor and these fees were passed in the same session...Dallas Courier Service