One of the under-recognized achievements of the 81st Texas Legislature was the addition of two amendments by state Rep. Sylvester Turner to the Department of Public Safety's Sunset bill requiring the agency to implement an indigence program for its Orwellian-named Driver Responsibility surcharge. (See pp. 186-190 of the bill-pdf).
According to material from the vendor, MSB Government Services, presently 6% of Texas drivers are subject to "driver responsibility" surcharges, but reportedly 65-70% of total fees go unpaid--largely because you can't get blood from a stone even if you take its drivers license away.
The Sunset Bill requires DPS to create an "Indigence Program," something the agency previously had the authority to do but chose not to implement. The bill defines "indigence" at 125% of the federal poverty level, lists a number of public-assistance related benchmarks that automatically qualify a petitioner for the exception, then declares without equivocation that the "department shall waive all surcharges" for everyone deemed "indigent," a determination that's made under the bill by the convicting court.
When the legislation finally takes effect two years from now,
Also, DPS will no longer be able suspend someone's driver license after 30 days if they don't pay the surcharge. They will have to wait 105 days, or until more notice has been given (including a first-ever requirement that notices be forwarded to any address registered with the USPS). In addition, drivers will be able to get their DL suspension lifted simply by beginning to make installment payments, whereas previously it was suspended until they'd paid the surcharge in full.
It should be mentioned that, in addition to the now-required Indigence Program, the agency still has not implemented the "Amnesty" or "Incentive" programs authorized by Sen. Steve Ogden's SB 1723 in the 80th Legislature. Like the Indigence Program, which was also first authorized in that bill, SB 1723 gave DPS the option to implement amnesty and payment incentive programs precisely to avoid untenably high non-collection rates like we commonly see today. If DPS continues its failure to utilize the tools the Lege gave them to make the surcharge more fair, one can imagine addtional pressure from lawmakers in future sessions to mandate more of these heretofore optional programs.
As mentioned previously, the Public Safety Commission discussed none of these issues, including the newly mandated indigence program, when the Driver Responsibility fee came up at their meeting last month. Instead, commissioners were mostly concerned with boosting collections rates by potentially garnishing wages or placing liens on people's homes, a terrible idea to implement during the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Clearly they haven't received the message from the Lege that they need to be making these surcharges more consumer friendly, not ever-more hostile to the whopping 6% of Texas drivers who owe them.
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