The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was designed to assess large additional fines – into the thousands of dollars apiece – to discourage certain offenses, such as drunken driving, and generate money for trauma care and highway construction. ...The story oddly doesn't mention that the Public Safety Commission in August ordered staff to draft rules implementing an amnesty/indigency program; most recently I was told they would come up at the PSC in February.
And while the Legislature may give some relief to lower-income drivers in two years, a leading critic said the program remains a modern-day "debtors prison" for a large number of Texans. An estimated one in nine arrest warrants in Austin, El Paso and other cities are being issued because of the surcharge program.
"It's a complete failure," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation to kill the program last year. Shapleigh was able to insert language into a related bill that would waive surcharges for indigent Texans, but it won't be effective until the fall of 2011, and then only if it has no significant impact on the state budget.
"What's happening is that people can't pay their fines, and then they lose their driver's license. That means they can't get to work," he said. "It has a snowball effect that's hurting a large number of citizens."
Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the surcharge legislation into law, remains a backer of the program despite its troubles. In signing the measure in 2003, he cited projections indicating it would raise $1 billion for trauma care centers by 2008.
"The governor continues to support this program, but he expects the Public Safety Commission to continue looking for ways to improve it," said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry.
But the program never worked as planned. More than 60 percent of the surcharges – $1.05 billion – has not been paid. Of the 1.9 million Texas drivers who have been told to pay, about 1.2 million have not, nearly two-thirds of those in the Driver Responsibility Program. If drivers don't pay, their licenses are automatically suspended 30 days after their initial conviction.
The state has collected more than $672 million, but none of it has gone to highways. And just a fraction has gone to trauma centers, said Shapleigh, who noted that the original push for the program came during the state's budget crunch in 2003, when lawmakers were scrambling for new revenue sources. The money is sitting in the state Treasury. The law that created the program required that collections pass a certain threshold before money is allocated.
In that light, one is mildly alarmed about a sentence toward the end of the story declaring "The Public Safety Commission at one time was considering a partial amnesty and incentive plan to boost payments, but that effort has been dropped." If that effort has been "dropped," that's not anything that was ever announced to stakeholders.
The last public action by the PSC I'm aware of was a motion by Commissioner Tom Clowe unanimously approved at the September meeting directing staff to bring back a version of the proposed rules that would apply retroactively. At the time, commissioners seemed enthusiastic about the proposal. DPS staff have insisted since then that they wouldn't share the draft with the public or members of the Legislature until the board had seen them. Maybe the rules have since died due to some invisible, internal bureaucratic machinations, but that's not what I was told as of Friday.
Supposedly Governor Perry's office expressed concern last fall about the fiscal impact of reduced surcharge revenue, which probably accounts for the delays. But rather than view this as lost money - and keep in mind they weren't collecting 70% of it, anyway - from a free-market perspective, the suggested DRP amnesty rules in practice amount to a substantial tax cut for 1.2 million Texans. What's more, in some cases lowering surcharges to manageable amounts could generate higher payment rates that offset losses. And amnesty would give drivers incentives to become street legal and buy insurance, whereas currently the surcharge is a disincentive that spawns illegality.
In an election year, you'd think it'd be easier to sell a policy that de facto puts money in the pockets of 1.2 million Texans and reduces the rate of uninsured drivers. In my fantasy world where I have enough money to buy the list of 1.2 million DRP scofflaws from the state and send them direct mail, I'd love to see postcards showing up in these voters' mailboxes telling them, "Times are hard, you deserve a break." There's some latent political oomph behind this issue, in other words, if it were ever properly tapped - 1.2 million people is a lot of folks.
Time will certainly tell, and the delay lets us know something's going on behind the scenes, but who knows what? It probably can't be good. I'll keep rooting around to see what I can find out.