Best case: The PSC comes back at its next meeting after today's rules hearing and instructs staff to upgrade the indigency program and create Amnesty and Incentive programs to encourage driver compliance. (Ideally they'd also instruct DPS to work on the rules with interested advocacy groups, who until now have been shut out of the process.)
Public Safety Commission Meeting
April 26, 2010, 3:00 p. m. – 7:00 p.m.
Senate Committee Hearing Room E1.028, and Room E1.016 for overflow
State Capitol Extension Bldg.
Austin , TX 78701
The Public Safety Commission will convene as posted to receive and consider public comment from all interested persons regarding adoption of proposed new 37 Texas Administrative Code (TAC) §15.163 and repeal of existing 37 TAC§15.163 regarding the Driver Responsibility Amnesty, Incentive and Indigence Program. The proposals are made under the authority of Texas Transportation Code, §708.157. The proposals were published in the March 5, 2010, issue of the Texas Register (35 TexReg 1940).
The hearing will be structured for the receipt of oral or written comments by interested persons. Individuals may present oral statements when called upon in order of registration. Each individual will be allotted 5 minutes for an oral statement. Those speaking may also turn in written comments. There will be no open discussion during the hearing. No formal action will be taken in this meeting.
Persons with disabilities who plan to attend this meeting and who may need auxiliary aids or services such as interpreters for persons who are deaf or hearing impaired, readers, large print, Braille, are requested to contact Rebekah Hibbs at (512) 424-2953, three work days prior to the meeting so that appropriate arrangements can be made.
The Legislature in 2007 punted the task of fixing this bad law to the Public Safety Commission, giving them authority to create Amnesty, Incentive and Indigency options for the program. Then in 2009 the Lege required an Indigency program be created, with specific requirements that must be in place by 2011.
If what's before them today is all that passes, the new indigency program won't be widely used and won't amount to much. The surcharges will still be too high for most people with incomes below 125% of federal poverty guidelines, and no Amnesty or Incentive program was proposed for other drivers. But it doesn't have to be that way: The PSC has an opportunity to do something much more important, to structure a path back to legality for the 1.2 million Texas drivers who've lost their driver's license over DRP fees. Nearly 2/3 of surcharges go unpaid.
In response to these shortcomings, an Appendix to Grits' comments to the PSC suggested a set of proposed amendments, developed in collaboration with Amanda Marzullo at the Texas Fair Defense Project, which would improve the rules in four key ways:
- Create an Amnesty program to clear up noncompliance backlog
- Use accurate documentation for the indigency application process
- Make language comply with 2011 statute waiving surcharges for indigents
- Create incentives to encourage compliance for other low-income drivers
Of course, the politically safe thing for commissioners to do would be to sign off on the staff recommendations and kick the ball down the road until the Lege changes the law. But commissioners have an opportunity, and the authority, to do more: They could substantially reform the program through rulemaking, and they should.
A recent national poll found that eight in ten Americans distrust government, and IMO situations like this are a great example of why: A dysfunctional government program which, if the DPS staff proposal is enacted, will continue to limp along, not working, even though the agency has the authority and an opportunity to fix it. That'll be my message to the PSC this afternoon: Show us that government can work, that every seemingly soluble problem isn't doomed to interminably gridlock. You have the authority to improve the lives of up to 1.2 million Texans and make the roadways safer. Why not seize it?
We're talking about 1.2 million drivers now functioning outside the system - no driver license, no insurance - because of this program. Strict enforcement has worsened the problems the law was created to solve, which is why the Legislature gave commissioners complete authority to restructure it. These are all Republican appointees, so in theory for small-government conservatives this should be a no-brainer: How many times in a career of public service do you get a chance to empower up to 1.2 million of your fellow Texans to get the government off their backs and its hands out of their wallets?
This is one of those times. Just three commissioners could decide; they've got all the authority they need, plus suggested alternative language to work from if staff continues to resist their directives. I'm cautiously optimistic that a majority appear to want to go further than DPS staff suggested, but it's still an against-the-odds kind of fight, the prospects for which we'll know much more about after this afternoon's hearing.
Related, recent Grits posts:
- The "intractable problem" for prosecutors created by the Driver Responsibility surcharge
- Leaving money on the table: The argument for Amnesty in the Driver Responsibility Program
- Public hearing set for April 26 on Driver Responsibility rules
- Driver surcharge boosting Texas joblessness
- Grits comments submitted on Driver Responsibility rules
- Unexplored costs from DPS surcharge harm safety, the economy
- Bill author says 'overly punitive' Driver responsibility surcharge a 'mistake'
- Indigency rules for Driver Responsibility surcharge published in Texas Register
- New Driver Responsibility rules unveiled today at DPS