UPDATE (5:14): Despite concerns expressed by key commissioners that they were too weak, the Public Safety Commission today approved publication in the Texas Register of a scaled back version of new indigency rules. I couldn't get a copy today, but in the public presentation by Drivers License division chief Michael Kelly, eligibility under today's proposal would be limited to those who:
- Are at 125% or below of federal poverty levels
- Submit supporting documentation (yet to be determined)
- Provide proof of insurance
- Make a one-time payment per surcharge owed ($500 for DWI; $250 for no insurance, $150 for no drivers license)
Kelly said the proposal had been revised because the comptroller told them it would not be budget neutral - calculations which to my knowledge have not been made public. I'd really like to see those, because as far as I can tell, collection rates are already so low there's a good chance a broader amnesty program would significantly improve collections.
Right now, DPS collects just 37% of Driver Responsibility surcharges owed, which is actually higher than other states (New Jersey's similar surcharge has a 25% collection rate, the commission was told.) What's more, after several months sending debtor-drivers more strongly worded collections-oriented letters, which had been touted as a way to increase returns, there was no significant increase at all and collection rates remained at 37%, commissioners were told today.
That means that 63% of those owing surcharges (a number which accumulates over time) aren't paying anything at all. If expanding an amnesty program beyond 125% of poverty (as DPS staff suggested last summer) enabled a significant percentage of those folks to pay the reduced fee, that's actually money coming in the door that the state wouldn't otherwise see.
What's more, there's more economic harm done by the surcharge than just to the state budget. Drivers who lose their license because of surcharges can't buy insurance. (Roughly 25% of Texas drivers are uninsured.) So any economic analysis should include on the debit side of the ledger the costs from accidents involving uninsured motorists facing unaffordable surcharges. Ditto for costs to county jails and court for processing the increasingly vast number of no-insurance, no-driver license cases. Taking that factor into account, the cost-benefit analysis becomes a no-brainer.
But whether or not collections increase or decline, in the bigger picture there are many, many other good reasons to aggressively expand an amnesty program beyond the minimalist suggestions released today. It just creates too many problems, as Texas prosecutors have been saying for years. On this question, I happen to agree with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who once wrote that:
Regardless how we measure the program, it is a disaster. It is a taxation masquerading as a public safety initiative. It probably has more negatives (jail, prosecution, uninsured drivers, etc.) than positives (money in the state's coffers). Unfortunately, the costs are hidden in county and city budgets.Looking atomistically at bottom line revenues for the Driver Responsibility program ignores these broader social costs and the best interests of the public overall. Thankfully, the Commissioners in their discussion seemed to understand that this minimalist approach wouldn't do enough, and openly discussed the possibility of strengthening the rules, depending on the recommendations received in the public hearing.
More on this after I see the actual proposed rules. I'll let folks know when they're posted and the public hearing set, and encourage anyone interested to submit comments or attend the hearing
See related Grits posts:
- Were indigency, amnesty programs for Driver Responsibility Surcharge secretly "dropped"?
- More delays on Driver Responsibility rules
- Public Safety Commission backs Driver Responsibility revamp
- DPS to propose its own Driver Responsibility "indigency" program alongside (instead of?) citizen petition
- Suspeding drivers licenses for economic crimes problematic here and abroad
- Petition for new Driver Responsibility rules filed today
- Proposed DPS rule would create new Indigency Program for 'Driver Responsibility' surcharge
- PSC plans to cancel contract with Driver Responsibility fee collection vendor
- DPS wrong to delay indigency program for 'driver responsibility' surcharge
- Department of "Public Safety" or "Collections"?
- Indigency program mandated for 'driver responsibility' fees?
- Senate would let judges reduce misnamed 'driver responsibility' fee
- On the limits of the justice system as tax collector
- 70% of 'Driver Responsibility' fees go unpaid
- Bad TX law fills road with unlicensed drivers, jails with non-crooks
- More than 10% of Texans currently wanted by police
- Driver Responsibility fee had unintended consequences, say prosecutors