Texans whose driver licenses have been suspended for failing to pay state-mandated surcharges are urged to take advantage of a one-time payment amnesty from late January to late April 2011.Just a few observations:
The Texas Department of Public Safety will offer lower payments to individuals who have been suspended and are in default on their surcharges. The goal of the amnesty period is to bring drivers into compliance with the surcharge law, and allow them to become licensed and insured drivers.
Those eligible for the Amnesty Program are anyone who had a surcharge assessed between Sept. 30, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2008, and were delinquent on those payments. The surcharges meeting the above criteria must be in default before the amnesty period. Those who qualify for the Amnesty Program will pay 10 percent of the original amount owed for all surcharges combined, for a maximum amount of $250.
Service fees will still apply. Any payments already made will be applied to the reduced amount, and if prior payments are more than the reduced amount due, no payment will be required. Prior payments more than the reduced amount due will not be refunded.
To apply for the Amnesty Program in late January, see the surcharge website at www.txsurchargeonline.com or call 1-800-688-6882. No requests will be accepted by mail, email or fax.
Once the online or telephone application is approved, the surcharge suspensions will be cleared on the applicant's driving record within three business days. Applicants will be provided the reduced amount to pay, and they can begin making payments after three business days.
Applicants for the Amnesty Program can pay in full or make payments, but the full amount must be paid by April 17, 2011. If payment in full is not received by April 17,2011, the reduction is voided and the suspensions are put back on the driving record. The Department does not have plans to offer another amnesty period.
An indigency program will be offered after the amnesty program ends in April. The Indigency program will apply to individuals at or below 125% of poverty level, using a sworn affidavit, will reduce the amount to 10 percent of total surcharges owed not to exceed $250, and will rescind suspension for those who receive indigency while payments are being made. Anyone assessed a surcharge since Sept. 30, 2004 will be eligible for the Indigency program.
For starters, though I take tremendous pleasure at seeing these programs finally roll out, I'm a bit disappointed that Amnesty will only apply to surcharges assessed through 12/31/08. I understand they didn't want people to fail to pay new surcharges in order to wait on amnesty, but I was hoping they would include an extra year, at least though 2009. Still, amnesty could help potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, and as my father likes to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye.
For those who want to use tax refund money to pay their amnesty or indigence fees, file your taxes as soon as you get your tax papers from your employer! If you wait until April 15 to file, you won't get your return in time to participate in the Amnesty program.
Critical to success of the Amnesty program will be how heavily DPS and their contractor, Municipal Services Bureau, promote the program to drivers with defaulted surcharges. Ideally, I'd like to see them aggressively mail and phone those in default encouraging them to participate, or most people simply won't be aware of the opportunity. Further, instead of simply mailing people at the address on their old, suspended driver license, DPS would do well to take their list and do an address update with the Post Office so fewer people will miss the notifications.
For those with defaulted surcharges who aren't eligible for Amnesty and still can't afford to pay, I would suggest applying for an occupational license: An appellate court recently ruled that drivers whose licenses are suspended over surcharges are eligible for occupational drivers licenses.
On the indigence program, it's worth noting that beginning in September 2011, the law requires judges to waive surcharges entirely for indigent defendants with incomes below 125%. Once that provision kicks in, there will be an inequity that could and should easily be rectified by waiving surcharges for indigents under DPS rules, just like the courts will be doing. That would require an additional rule change, but otherwise one suspects people will prefer to petition the courts to waive the surcharge instead of pay $250 under DPS rules.
In addition to amnesty and indigence programs, the Public Safety Commission also approved an "incentive" program for people who are current on their surcharges, but it hasn't yet been scheduled for implementation. I'd like to see the commission move forward with the incentive program after they've rolled out the new indigency provisions, to dispel the perception that DPS is punishing those who play by the rules. Perhaps the Legislature should simply require implementation of the incentive program, if it doesn't abolish the DRP altogether.
Finally, legislation has been filed to abolish the Driver Responsibility Program and a federal lawsuit filed last year seeks to have the surcharges declared unconstitutional. If either of those efforts succeed, amnesty for those who've defaulted in the past should be applied comprehensively, not just to older cases, and defaulted surcharges should simply be waived rather than try to pick up the pieces of this failed revenue scheme. Indeed, if the courts declare the surcharge unconstitutional, one wonders if the state might end up having to pay back all the surcharge money collected since 2004? That would be quite the comeuppance. Time will tell.