Chairman Allan Polunsky, in particular, was frustrated that a contract paying the vend0r $12 million per year over the last three years - up from $4 million the first full year it was issued - had been renewed recently for a five-year term without the PSC ever being notified or taking a formal vote. The vendor - an Austin-based company called MSB Government Services - takes 4% off the top from everything it collects, the company's President told the Commission. Polunsky stated in no uncertain terms that the process had been unacceptable and the contract should have - and would be - put out for bid.
Other commissioners and DPS' General Counsel were concerned with the company's use of DPS letterhead on its dunning letters, particularly those which are not form letters but are specifically tailored to individual cases.
Company officials had come prepared to suggest using more "assertive, collections-oriented verbiage" in letters and "daily" phone calls aimed at those who owe back surcharges. That development, if authorized, would make the use of DPS' name and letterhead even more problematic. Given that a whopping 6% of Texas drivers presently owe Driver Responsibility surcharges, that would put DPS' official imprimatur on some fairly harsh communications directed at a significant percentage of the public.
In the end, Commissioners cut off MSB's presentation in mid-stream and demanded that they (and DPS staff) return at their next meeting better prepared to answer their outstanding questions.
I attended to speak to the commission about the Driver Responsibility program 0during the public communications period to ensure that somebody had told the PSC face to face that they're required to implement an indigency program for the DRP sooner than later. I reminded them that the Driver Responsibility surcharge is tacked on in adddition to existing criminal penalties and was created explicitly as a revenue generation scheme - essentially a "tax by another name" - and that excessive civil fees can be as harmful to civic health as high taxes.
Staff discussions of the surcharge revealed some data I'd not seen before about the program. Since its inception DPS, has billed out $1,270,538,003 in surcharges but MSB has only been able to collect $468,774,222. There are four categories of offenses for which DPS collects the surcharge: "Points" accumulated on the driver license because of tickets, DWI convictions, no-insurance citations, and driving with a suspended license. Most fees are for lesser offenses, as demonstrated by this breakdown of the portion of fees assessed attributable to each category (compiled by the DPS Driver License division):
Points: 3%The collections percentages also varied widely. Those whose surcharge is for "points" (the lowest surcharge fees) paid off their surcharge at a rate of 69%, compared to just 37% for DWI and 38% for those with no-insurance tickets.
No insurance: 57%
No driver license: 28%
Predictably, surcharges for offenders driving with a suspended license had the lowest collections rate (27%). That's because the penalty for not paying other types of surcharges includes suspension of your driver license, so many people in that category already owe surcharge fees they can't pay, which is why they were driving without a license in the first place. It's precisely that slippery slope that's most troubling to me about this fee because it creates a situation where surcharges snowball, harming public safety instead of improving it by making it more likely people will drive without a license or insurance.
The other piece of news coming out of these discussions (and I'll be providing readers' much more detail on this aspect of the story next week): I informed the Commission that they'd soon be receiving a formal petition for new rulemaking regarding the Driver Responsibility surcharge proposed on behalf of this blog.
This is something my wife Kathy Mitchell and I have been preparing as a little home-grown activist project. Under state law, agencies are required to give a petition for rulemaking a public hearing if it's accompanied by 25 signatures. The rules we plan to suggest would implement the Indigency, Amnesty and Incentive programs that were authorized by the Lege in 2007 but never actually established by the PSC.
More on this next week when we publicly release the formal petition for rulemaking and begin to solicit support and endorsements for the proposal.