Friday, July 03, 2009

DPS must change rules to give life to Driver Responsibility indigency program

UPDATE: This item contains factual errors which are detailed and corrected in this post.

One of the under-recognized achievements of the 81st Texas Legislature was the addition of two amendments by state Rep. Sylvester Turner to the Department of Public Safety's Sunset bill requiring the agency to implement an indigence program for its Orwellian-named Driver Responsibility surcharge. (See pp. 186-190 of the bill-pdf).

According to material from the vendor, MSB Government Services, presently 6% of Texas drivers are subject to "driver responsibility" surcharges, but reportedly 65-70% of total fees go unpaid--largely because you can't get blood from a stone even if you take its drivers license away.

The Sunset Bill requires DPS to create an "Indigence Program," something the agency previously had the authority to do but chose not to implement. The bill defines "indigence" at 125% of the federal poverty level, lists a number of public-assistance related benchmarks that automatically qualify a petitioner for the exception, then declares without equivocation that the "department shall waive all surcharges" for everyone deemed "indigent," a determination that's made under the bill by the convicting court.

Those who already owe surcharges would not qualify for the indigency program have to petition the convicting court and demonstrate their indigence through a variety of means outlined in the bill which regrettably does not take effect until 2011 (see the comments section for more background on the correction).

When the legislation finally takes effect two years from now,
the Sunset bill will effect a number of changes - most of them suggested by the collections vendor - to give people additional time to make more numerous, smaller payments so more people can afford them. A DRP surcharge of $500, for example, previously had to be broken up into at most 10 installment payments; under the Sunset bill an individual owing that amount could pay it off in 36 installments.

Also, DPS will no longer be able suspend someone's driver license after 30 days if they don't pay the surcharge. They will have to wait 105 days, or until more notice has been given (including a first-ever requirement that notices be forwarded to any address registered with the USPS). In addition, drivers will be able to get their DL suspension lifted simply by beginning to make installment payments, whereas previously it was suspended until they'd paid the surcharge in full.

It should be mentioned that, in addition to the now-required Indigence Program, the agency still has not implemented the "Amnesty" or "Incentive" programs authorized by Sen. Steve Ogden's SB 1723 in the 80th Legislature. Like the Indigence Program, which was also first authorized in that bill, SB 1723 gave DPS the option to implement amnesty and payment incentive programs precisely to avoid untenably high non-collection rates like we commonly see today. If DPS continues its failure to utilize the tools the Lege gave them to make the surcharge more fair, one can imagine addtional pressure from lawmakers in future sessions to mandate more of these heretofore optional programs.

As mentioned previously, the Public Safety Commission discussed none of these issues, including the newly mandated indigence program, when the Driver Responsibility fee came up at their meeting last month. Instead, commissioners were mostly concerned with boosting collections rates by potentially garnishing wages or placing liens on people's homes, a terrible idea to implement during the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Clearly they haven't received the message from the Lege that they need to be making these surcharges more consumer friendly, not ever-more hostile to the whopping 6% of Texas drivers who owe them.



Anonymous said...

Hey Grits,

I am confused.

Your article says, "Those who already owe surcharges would have to petition the convicting court and demonstrate their indigence through a variety of means outlined in the bill, while going forward presumably indigence can be determined at the time the court convicts you."

The bill states, "A surcharge that was assessed under that chapter before the effective date of this article is subject to the law in effect on the date the surcharge was assessed, and that law is continued in effect for that purpose." And then, "This article takes effect September 1, 2011." (Section 15.07, page 190)

So, help me on I reading the bill wrong? It seems to conflict with your comment about it.

I hope you are right. Otherwise, this won't help anyone until 2011.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sadly, I think you're right and I misinterpreted it, not noticing the separate effective date for the DRP section.

That said, it's still a little unclear. DPS already had permissive authority to do an indigency program under SB 1723 from last session, and it still has permissive authority to implement amnesty and incetnive programs, it's just not statutorily mandated. I don't know why they went with the 2011 effective date on indigence. That's both annoying and frustrating

I'll correct the error in the text.

Anonymous said...

2011! WTF!! :(

Anonymous said...

This means there are 8 years worth of people who have been assessed these fees without any consideration for indigency, student status or even disability. In some, if not many of these cases, they have been swept even further into the justice system with additional criminal charges for DWLS related to late payments and consequently even more fees. Again, without consideration for the ability to pay.

You won't go to jail for not paying the fee. Instead, it is turned over to a collection agency which will then hurt your credit. Bad credit can effect the ability to obtain employment, housing and loans, even loans for educational purposes.

This is no more than a way for the State to generate revenue disguised as a method of promoting public safety. Let me suggest this does more harm than good for public safety - more uninsured drivers is a big one. And, closing doors on opportunites for employment, housing and education are also detrimental to public safety in both the short and the long run.

From what I have seen, it looks as though Texas has the highest by far among the states who have these fees. The state of Michigan, whose fees were much less to begin with has recently dropped theirs back from 2 years to 1 year and is giving refunds in some cases.

So the band-aid that was applied by the Legislature was to give judges the ability to consider these factors and discretion in waiving or reducing the amount - from September 1, 2011 and beyond. That did absolutely nothing to help those that have already been wounded by this and struggle to recover.

I realize this is uncharted territory and thereby more complex, but it seems there is a need for a class action lawsuit to provide relief and perhaps even stop this forever in every state. It absolutely undermines some of our most basic values that we otherwise encourage regarding education, employment and housing and puts everyone at greater risk of being hit by the dreaded uninsured driver.

Casey Chambless said...

I have a hearing on this scheduled for August 2nd. As it turns out, if you request a hearing on a habitual offender charge, the mandatory suspension rises from 90 up to 365 days.

Basically, you question our authority, we screw you.

I plan on a defense that the law is unconstitutional. I will probably lose, but as I am a pre-law college student, I feel I have to give it a try. Wish me luck.