Thursday, January 28, 2016

Senators hate on driver surcharge law: 'Immoral,' 'blood money,' 'debtor's prison'

At a Texas Senate Transportation Committee hearing yesterday, Chairman Robert Nichols chastised the Department of Public Safety for failing to implement an amnesty program since 2011 for the Driver Responsibility Surcharge, even though the agency has authority.

Last year, DPS officials told legislators they were considering another amnesty program during the interim, but backed away from the commitment after the members left town. Chairman Nichols told them they didn't need to wait for legislative approval and to come back to his committee March 29 with plans for an amnesty program and other suggestions for mitigating public harm from the program.

You can watch the hearing here, it's the first item up. And for once, there was good MSM coverage:
Here are a few money quotes, first from the Statesman:
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, called the program immoral because a failure to pay the fees — which are levied in addition to court costs, fines and penalties — results in an automatic suspension of a driver’s license, placing those who can least afford to pay at risk of losing jobs.

About 1.3 million drivers have lost their licenses under the program, he said.

“To me, it just looks like what we’ve got here is a debtor’s prison,” said state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, who noted that the state has been able to collect only $1.5 billion of the $3.9 billion in fees assessed since 2003.

“You’ve got $2.4 billion owed by the poorest people in our state. That just seems like bad government,” Huffines said. “We’re making a permanent underclass here.”
From the Dallas News:
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a law that the unintended consequences have had such a negative effect on our public,” said Harris County Criminal Court Judge Jean Spradling Hughes.

Critics of the program, which was created in 2003, have long said it is unfair to poor Texans. By suspending the license of a driver who can’t afford to pay surcharges and then sending them to jail when they’re arrested for driving without a license, criminal justice reformers say the program creates debtors’ prison.

Several lawmakers agreed.

“This is very similar to the spiraling effect of a payday loan,” Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said Wednesday. “It just makes poor people poor.”
From the Chronicle:
"The program has problems and has had problems since Day One," said Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. Noting that lawmakers have aired grievances about the program for several years, he added, "we have given you enough direction to work on the problem."
From the Tribune:
Outside the hearing room, Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business said he was troubled by the way the program forces people who need to drive to work to risk exorbitant penalties.

“It’s failed public policy. It’s not working,” Hammond said, describing it as "double jeopardy." “In order for people to eat, they have to work, and in order for them to work, they’ve got to drive in most cases. So it’s just a cascading situation that gets worse and worse, and it doesn’t create the behavior it’s intended to create.”
And here are a few items from Grits' notes:

The Legislative Budget Board told the committee the program raised $151.2 million in FY 2015. Hospitals received much less, though. Greg Glod from the Texas Public Policy Foundation gave the committee this spreadsheet showing how much went to individual hospitals last year: $54.7 million.

The collection rate has risen from 40% in 2010 to 51% in 2014, said LBB, mainly because of waived revenue from amnesty and indigence programs.

Since 2003, the program has billed $3.9 billion dollars but collected only $1.5 billion, said LBB. (N.b., since 1.5 is 38% of 3.9, I don't understand where the 40 and 51% numbers come from!)

Texas added more than 681,000 new DRP cases in FY 2015, and 1.8 million drivers have active cases.

Chairman Nichols suggested the state should find ways to "reward good behavior" by reducing surcharges instead of focusing only on punishment.

Sen. Wallace Hall called DRP revenue "blood money" and questioned whether the government should be in the business of subsidizing commercial hospital ventures at all.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, who is the hospitals' staunchest supporter on the committee, told Hall that government already massively subsidizes health care and that ship has sailed. But she also chimed in at one point to say, "I don't want a debtor's prison" and seemed genuinely concerned at the huge number of people in her district who owe surcharges.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia compared the effect on poor people to that of "payday loans," an analogy the other senators picked up approvingly.

Elizabeth Henneke of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition offered written testimony (uploaded here) an an anecdote about an indigent client, a 67 year old woman, who'd been incarcerated for a week four different times, had lost her home and marriage because she couldn't drive to work, and essentially would never be free from the entangled mess.

Henneke said most lawyers do not advise their clients about the DRP. (That's a huge problem: Grits thought they were required to do so after the Supreme Court's Padilla case made them advise of collateral consequences.) She suggested the Lege divert court fees from general revenue to raise money for hospitals because then judges can address indigence and attorneys would better advise their clients.

Judge Jean Spradling Hughes from Harris County told the committee, "This law has not enhanced public safety in fact it has put it in dire straits." "Daily I see people who are in this cycle," she declared, "and are not going to get out," and not just poor people but middle income people, too.

Judge Hughes suggested doubling the cost of driver licenses or adding $5 to vehicle registration to cover the cost of abolishing the program.

Right now, she said, defendants must choose between paying surcharges to get a driver license or paying for insurance. "I can put them in jail for a year and it's not going to change their behavior," she said. "Most of the people want to comply but financially they just can't do it."

Emily Gerrick of the Texas Fair Defense Project emphasized how quickly everything adds up. After a first surcharge goes unpaid and someone's license is revoked, at subsequent stops they get multiple tickets with additional surcharges - no insurance, no registration, invalid license. She cited a study from New Jersey, which is one of the only states with a similar program, finding that,  after losing their licenses, 66% of surcharge-owing drivers lost their jobs.

Bottom line: At a time when 63 percent of Americans "don't have the savings to cover a $500 car repair or a $1,000 medical or dental bill," this cruel abomination of a program does far more harm than good, both to the public and the economy at large. It may have taken legislators more than a decade to realize it, but we appear to be approaching a consensus, at least in the Texas Senate, that something has to change.

MORE: Thanks to the Legislative Budget Board for posting their presentation to the committee here.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Driver Surcharge appears to be on its way out but the TxLege needs to also look at Auto Title Loan industry. This is a SERIOUS fraud perpetrated on mostly poor people

Anonymous said...

As a probation officer, I make it a point to check the DL status of my folks because one of my biggest pet peeves are the DWLI charges that come through our courts. I have even taken to helping my probationers apply for the indigency program since these poor folks don't have easy access to computers to upload their supporting documentation. A majority of them had never heard of the surcharges from their attorneys and many claim they had no clue their licenses were suspended (caused mainly by their failure to update their addresses on the ID/DL, but c'est la vie). This program needs to go. Court costs are out of control, probation fees are too expensive, and the programs we send people to aren't cheap. Hell, we Texans pay more in car insurance than other states. Being able to drive is nearly inherent in this sate. If we're going to give early release credit for certain state jail and third degree felonies, then we need to do something about this. The top brass at DPS should be ashamed of themselves for failing to follow through with promises they made to the Lege over the last five years. I think it's time the Lege called in Steven McCraw, Robert Bodisch, Sr., and Joe Peters, along with Gov. Abbott, and wipe the floor with them publicly.

Anonymous said...

Who exactly created this bit of legislation?

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that once you have a surcharge DPS adds another year or two of suspension! So the state is basically putting all drivers in danger! These folks still need to get to work, take kids to school, go to grocery story, and they are going to drive!! Do you blame them?? Can any of you go 2 years without driving a car??
The legislators made this mess and very year they say they are going to fix it but no one has the BALLS to do it! I think if they weren't so scared of the hospitals PAC not giving to their campaign maybe something would get done. I don't think any of our legislators give a rat's ass about these poor Texans who can't afford to pay surcharges or failure to appear (some tickets are in the $600 range)!

I pray some smart attorney will sue DPS and take this to the Supreme Court!

Anonymous said...

How many people know the difference between driving vs traveling? There is a difference.

Anonymous said...

Driving is a privilege while traveling is generally a right, excluding those on probation/parole or other likewise restrictions.

I wouldn't blame DPS for the DRA mess created by the legislature. The legislature created the problem and needs to resolve the problem they created and mandated. I do not support the surcharge program.

Anonymous said...

You're a good person.

Anonymous said...

Why is the Legislature waiting for DPS to come up with a solution? Just pass a law and abolish it. Passing laws is what they are there for. They don't need DPS' consent or agreement.