Though the program never met expectations, failing to collect nearly 2/3 of assessments, surcharges remain a significant revenue source. But no one should lose sight of the fact that they pale in comparison to state revenues generated from property and sales taxes. Creating jobs and expanding the tax base must be the long-term engine for getting out of the current economic slump. For that reason, the state has a strong self interest in ensuring that employed, low-income Texans are able to pay off outstanding surcharges and keep their jobs.
The effects of surcharges on low-income drivers have been studied in detail. Amanda Marzullo at the Texas Fair Defense Project points to a 2006 survey (pdf) from the the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force. They studied the surcharge's impact on drivers with licenses suspended due to their own Driver Responsibility Program, which levies the same license surcharges as the Texas DRP.
According to that survey, of persons with suspended licenses whose annual income was under $30,000: (1) 64% were unable to maintain their prior employment following a license suspension; (2) only 51% of persons who lost their job following a license suspension were able to find a new employment; (3) 66% reported that their license suspension negatively affected their job performance; and (4) 90% of persons whose license was suspended within this income bracket indicated that they were unable to pay costs that were related to their suspended driving privileges. In addition, of those who were able to find a new job following a license suspension-related dismissal, 88% reported a reduction in income.
That makes Driver Responsibility surcharges a major cause of job loss, significantly exacerbating the current economic downturn. Roughly 1.2 million Texas drivers have lost their license because they defaulted on DRP surcharge debts. No doubt a significant number make less than $30,000 per year.
The rules published in the Texas Register only impact drivers with incomes below 125% of federal poverty guidelines - around $10,000 per year for an individual. But the New Jersey study found that drivers with three times that income were losing their licenses and their jobs because of the DRP. In most cases, though not “indigent” under proposed DPS definitions, such levies remain beyond the means of many, though they are often able to make some sort of payment. Texas is both leaving money on the table and harming the economy in the big picture by not crafting payment programs to accommodate them.
UPDATE: A commenter reminds me I should have mentioned that the public comment period for the proposed rules ends Monday April 5, so get yours in if you're going to. Comments may be submitted to Rebekah Hibbs, Driver License Division, Texas Department of Public Safety, P.O. Box 4087 (MSC 0300), Austin, Texas 78773; by fax to (512) 424-5233; or by email to DLDRuleComments@txdps.state.tx.us.
Keep in mind the PSC cannot abolish the surcharge, so the focus should be on asking them to do all they have authority to do. The main things folks should be asking for are:
- Create an Amnesty program to clear up noncompliance backlog
- Use accurate documentation for indigency application process
- Make language comply with 2011 statute waiving surcharges for indigents
- Create incentives to encourage compliance for other low-income drivers
- Unexplored costs from DPS surcharge harm safety, the economy
- Comments due soon on Driver Responsibility rules
- Bill author says 'overly punitive' Driver responsibility surcharge a 'mistake'
- Indigency rules for Driver Responsibility surcharge published in Texas Register
- Some Texans want an end to Driver Responsibility program, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
- Lawmaker seeks to repeal DPS surcharge on certain traffic tickets, KVUE-Austin
- Critics: Law puts drivers on road to ruin, Houston Chronicle
- Driven to Repeal, The Texas Tribune
- State lawmakers consider repeal of Driver Responsibility Act, Fox34-News Lubbock
- Hefty surcharges for Texas drivers with violations to mostly uncollected, Dallas News