More than 1.2 million Texans who have refused to pay big fines for drunken driving and other violations are about to be rewarded in spite of their scofflaw ways.I couldn't agree more the surcharges should be eliminated entirely. What's more I agree with critics that those currently paying surcharges are getting a raw deal, a problem that could have been avoided by also implementing a proposed "incentive" program that reduces fines for those who are responsible about paying.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of drivers who have followed state law and made their payments on time are being told to keep doing so.
The contrast in treatment of those who ignore the law and those who don't has rankled some legislators who say that the Texas Driver Responsibility Program hasn't worked and should be scrapped.
The Amnesty provisions are clearly justified: There needs to be a way to bring the 1.2 million drivers who've lost their licenses because of the surcharge back into compliance. Instead of encouraging people to get insurance, the Driver Responsibility Program has resulted in more unlicensed, uninsured drivers on the road. A lot of these people have been out of compliance for many years because the financial burden of getting their license reinstated is too great. I don't regret for a second promoting the Amnesty program and I'm glad they approved it.
But the legislation originally authorizing the new rules, carried by Republican state Sen. Steve Ogden in 2007, envisioned reducing fees for compliant drivers as well as those who'd defaulted. DPS even approved rules that would reduce surcharges for compliant drivers, but gave them no effective date. So rules are in place for an "Incentive" program that could help those folks, but unlike the other two programs they're not yet scheduled for implementation.
Though nobody ever said so publicly, according to back-room whispering during the vetting process for the new rules, DPS chose to delay the Incentive program because Governor Perry's budget folks intervened, fearing that doing so would reduce surcharge contributions to the General Revenue fund during what's looking like the worst budget crisis in state history. From a revenue perspective, that makes sense. From the point of view of simple fairness, though, it creates a perception that people who play by the rules are punished for doing so. The surcharges are a major burden for those who must pay them and it's hard to explain continuing to bleed some drivers for revenue when those who never paid get off for a smaller sum.
From the beginning this program was not about public safety, it was about revenue generation. Even DPS Col. Steve McCraw, no soft-on-crime liberal, has said there's no evidence the program has improved public safety, reduced DWIs or encouraged more drivers to carry insurance.
The DRP's improper focus on bleeding drivers for money was thrown into stark relief by the new Amnesty rules: The desire to keep revenue flowing was the sole reason for not giving a break to people who consistently paid the fees. Indeed, in some ways revenue consideration contributed to DPS' willingness to implement Amnesty rules, since they'll at least get $250 apiece from drivers who've defaulted on the surcharges and otherwise weren't paying anything at all.
Indeed, we've reached the point where having so many unlicensed drivers thanks to the surcharge is actually reducing revenue in other areas. Drivers licenses are renewed every six years, so with 1.2 million unlicensed drivers thanks to the DRP, we can assume about 200,000 per year will not be renewing their drivers licenses because they haven't paid their surcharges. License renewal fees are $27, so that's $5.4 million in reduced revenue from licensure fees annually because of the program, before you even get to the big-picture economic and public safety costs.
My hope is that the Public Safety Commission's new DRP rules are the beginning of reform - not an end game - pushing the issue higher up the Legislature's priority list. Best case scenario: The unfairness of the current arrangement will convince them to mandate that DPS implement the Incentive rules or, even better, to scrap the program entirely.