Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Could abolishing Texas' driver surcharges become an election issue? Examining reform suggestions

The El Paso Times' Marty Schladen had a good article published Sunday ("Reform sought in Texas surcharge program," Sept. 22) focusing on efforts by Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chairman Joe Pickett to modify the state's Driver Responsibility Surcharge - a civil penalty tacked on top of criminal fines for certain traffic-related violations. The article suggested that, "The debate is of particular relevance to El Paso because the city's drivers lead the state in some of the offenses that lead to charges under the responsibility program." In particular:
El Paso drivers appear to lead the state in the number surcharges they're hit with. 

In a DPS listing of the 10 Texas ZIP codes with the most surcharges, four were in El Paso. Of the 538,000 surcharges on the list, almost half -- 236,000 -- were for El Paso drivers.
Despite the staggering figures presented in the chart on the right, Pickett seems unwilling to contemplate full-on abolition of the surcharge. "I'm not proposing to scrap the program," he told Schladen, "I'm just trying to make it more effective." Regrettably, this program will never be "effective." Enacted in only seven states during a flurry around the turn of the century, two have already repealed similar laws, reported Schladen.

Besides the preponderance of El Paso zip codes, Dallas County stands out from the pack. Plus, clearly many zip codes outside the top ten still have tens of thousands of people liable for surcharges. These are enormous numbers of voting-age Texans we're talking about. If Grits were still advising political campaigns, I'd suggest state rep and senate candidates make abolishing the surcharge a campaign issue: Get the lists of surcharge-owing drivers under open records from DPS, match them to the voter rolls, and target those drivers for voter registration and/or GOTV with messages saying they'd try to abolish it if elected.

Last month, the Texas Department of Public Safety offered recommendations for streamlining the program and improving collections in a document Grits recently acquired under the Public Information Act (see here). Some suggestions may be beneficial to drivers while others are merely aimed at mulcting the maximum amounts from them. These ideas, summarized below, were clearly not intended to all be implemented together but are atomic proposals designed to be broken out into piecemeal reforms. Most would require statutory changes in 2015:
  • Eliminate (instead of merely reduce) surcharges for drivers under 125% of the poverty level.
  • Allow DPS to share social security numbers with the collections vendor.
  • Apply recent extensions of installment plans to older cases.
  • Develop a "tiered settlement" program to collect lower amounts on older surcharges.
  • Allow DPS to access address information from the Department of Insurance and vehicle registration sources.
  • Simplify/clarify language about surcharges on the citation and require courts to both provide information about the surcharges and reduction programs at the time of conviction.
  • Expand the military deferral program to include surcharges for DWIs and too many points.
  • Allow DPS to change the surcharge amounts for various categories of offenders.
  • Require probation or deferred adjudication of all first offenses for Driving With License Invalid. (This offense was already lowered from a Class B to a Class C offense because it was overwhelming local jails.)
  • Lowering all the surcharge amounts and applying them for only one year instead of three.
  • Expand the incentive program to "include reductions for compliance with the law or rehabilitation." (This could be done by agency rule.)
Another set of suggestions were labeled as having the lowest probability of success:
  • Impose additional consequences such as "liens against property, intercepting IRS refunds and lottery winnings, denying passports, placing non-payers on probation, requesting jail time and collecting unclaimed property from the Comptroller."
  • Allow drivers to make cash payments through wire transfer stores.
  • Allow community service in lieu of surcharges.
  • Make the No Insurance, DWLI and No Drivers License surcharges part of the point system, leaving DWIs as the only conviction-based surcharge. (This should have been much higher up in their potential effectiveness rankings!)
  • Authorize the vendor to receive "tiered compensation" for older surcharges.
Finally, DPS suggested the following potential administrative changes to the program, some of which they could and should have done long ago:
  • Eliminate the notarization requirement for application to the DPS indigency program.
  • Waive installment plan fees under the indigency program.
  • Combine installment plan fees for customers paying on multiple surcharges.
  • Implement another Amnesty program, this time actually promoting it aggressively and advertising it in the media. (DPS should not wait for the Lege to tell them to do this!)
  • Allow customers to submit payments through PayPal.
  • Advertise the names of drivers with licenses suspended for non-payment of surcharges. (DPS says this would help with notification but it seems to me like a suggestion for public shaming).
  • Allow drivers to apply for occupational licenses through an online portal without having to hire an attorney.
If the Lege can't muster the political will to abolish the program, Grits supports many of these proposals as modest improvements over the status quo. (Note to the Public Safety Commission: Enact a second Amnesty program now!). But as the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's Ana Correa told the El Paso Times, really the state should abolish the surcharge. Even the best of these suggestions amount to putting lipstick on a particularly ugly pig.

See prior, related Grits posts:

4 comments:

Force Majeure said...

Lts of lipstick indeed. The only appropriate thing to do with the DRP is to absolutely end it, leaving no aspects of it to finger on. It has unquestionably done far more harm than good.

Patrick Butler said...

As I recall, in 2001 or so then Rep. Truitt got the surcharge going to fund hospital trauma centers under the mistaken notion that drivers of uninsured cars and other low lifes "cause" the accidents leading to the need for trauma care.
Repeal of the surcharges depends on alternative hospital funding that realizes that ALL car use produces the risk of road accidents. Therefore, for a stable funding source ALL road users must contribute, either through gas taxes or a cents per mile charge.

Anonymous said...

Websters dictionary states "surcharge" as an excessive charge. this was on my water bill , after a meter was installed, I ask why? the word surcharge was removed, and a higher water rate was charged to me. I guess any one can do the "Texas way" screw you , to benefit them. fine,fine,fine, would be an intrest to fine out exactally where the surcharge went to, I,ll bet a small percentage went to what it first was stated to go far, hospital funding, what a bunch of crap. stop it. upkeep of a car is excessive any way.. c. kobus

Anonymous said...

Amnesty!