Friday, July 17, 2009

Public Safety Commission plans to cancel contract with Driver Responsibility fee collections vendor

At a Texas Public Safety Commission meeting today, the vendor in charge of collections for the Orwellian-named "Driver Responsibility" surcharge faced a brutal reaction from commission members, who questioned the company's "ethics" and openly called for their contract to be terminated as soon as feasible. Department of Public Safety staff promised to prepare an agenda item to end the contract (which requires 90 days notice) at the next Commission meeting in August.

Chairman Allan Polunsky, in particular, was frustrated that a contract paying the vend0r $12 million per year over the last three years - up from $4 million the first full year it was issued - had been renewed recently for a five-year term without the PSC ever being notified or taking a formal vote. The vendor - an Austin-based company called MSB Government Services - takes 4% off the top from everything it collects, the company's President told the Commission. Polunsky stated in no uncertain terms that the process had been unacceptable and the contract should have - and would be - put out for bid.

Other commissioners and DPS' General Counsel were concerned with the company's use of DPS letterhead on its dunning letters, particularly those which are not form letters but are specifically tailored to individual cases.

Company officials had come prepared to suggest using more "assertive, collections-oriented verbiage" in letters and "daily" phone calls aimed at those who owe back surcharges. That development, if authorized, would make the use of DPS' name and letterhead even more problematic. Given that a whopping 6% of Texas drivers presently owe Driver Responsibility surcharges, that would put DPS' official imprimatur on some fairly harsh communications directed at a significant percentage of the public.

In the end, Commissioners cut off MSB's presentation in mid-stream and demanded that they (and DPS staff) return at their next meeting better prepared to answer their outstanding questions.

I attended to speak to the commission about the Driver Responsibility program 0during the public communications period to ensure that somebody had told the PSC face to face that they're required to implement an indigency program for the DRP sooner than later. I reminded them that the Driver Responsibility surcharge is tacked on in adddition to existing criminal penalties and was created explicitly as a revenue generation scheme - essentially a "tax by another name" - and that excessive civil fees can be as harmful to civic health as high taxes.

Staff discussions of the surcharge revealed some data I'd not seen before about the program. Since its inception DPS, has billed out $1,270,538,003 in surcharges but MSB has only been able to collect $468,774,222. There are four categories of offenses for which DPS collects the surcharge: "Points" accumulated on the driver license because of tickets, DWI convictions, no-insurance citations, and driving with a suspended license. Most fees are for lesser offenses, as demonstrated by this breakdown of the portion of fees assessed attributable to each category (compiled by the DPS Driver License division):
Points: 3%
DWI: 12%
No insurance: 57%
No driver license: 28%
The collections percentages also varied widely. Those whose surcharge is for "points" (the lowest surcharge fees) paid off their surcharge at a rate of 69%, compared to just 37% for DWI and 38% for those with no-insurance tickets.

Predictably, surcharges for offenders driving with a suspended license had the lowest collections rate (27%). That's because the penalty for not paying other types of surcharges includes suspension of your driver license, so many people in that category already owe surcharge fees they can't pay, which is why they were driving without a license in the first place. It's precisely that slippery slope that's most troubling to me about this fee because it creates a situation where surcharges snowball, harming public safety instead of improving it by making it more likely people will drive without a license or insurance.

The other piece of news coming out of these discussions (and I'll be providing readers' much more detail on this aspect of the story next week): I informed the Commission that they'd soon be receiving a formal petition for new rulemaking regarding the Driver Responsibility surcharge proposed on behalf of this blog.

This is something my wife Kathy Mitchell and I have been preparing as a little home-grown activist project. Under state law, agencies are required to give a petition for rulemaking a public hearing if it's accompanied by 25 signatures. The rules we plan to suggest would implement the Indigency, Amnesty and Incentive programs that were authorized by the Lege in 2007 but never actually established by the PSC.

More on this next week when we publicly release the formal petition for rulemaking and begin to solicit support and endorsements for the proposal.


ckikerintulia said...

When the petition is ready count on one signature (at least) from Tulia.

Anonymous said...

I know nothing about the collection business, but common sense leads me to question the wisdom and potential ethics of any collection agency which would take on this project. Besides the fact these fees are enormous, much of this population has never even been approved for any creditworthiness. So MSB resorted to impersonating a state agency. The next one might resort to "bruno" tactics.

The legislature has addressed some of the problem for the future and they have asked the PSC to remedy the current and they are obviously choosing not to do so. They should at least get the indigents and students out of the system, like the judges will do in the future. Make it retroactive from the time the fee was assessed and let people send in the documentation for those years, get them out of the system or reduced and then concentrate on those cases where there is at least some chance to collect.

Good project, Grits and wife!

P.S. Give us an update on your niece if you can.

Andres Morin III said...

MSB is nothing more than a company that is owned by cronies of Rick Perry and/ or his associates(also cronies) in Austin. They do not provide any "government services".........unless extortion is what passes for government services these days!! The fact that 70% of these "fees" go unpaid leads me to believe that Texans who are ensnared in this "tangled web" aren't as stupid as Rick Perry and his Republican cronies thought they were!! If I was assessed this stupid fee, I wouldn't pay it either!! You listen and you listen good Rick Perry......we don't like you and we WON'T be EXTORTED!!

Anonymous said...

Fines work best with people who have a sense of community, desire to avoid stigmatization, maintain their position as a responsible citizen, and the resources to pay the fine.

When fines are assessed aginst those who lack some or all of these conditions they are likley to fail to achieve their primary goal -- specific deterrence. Chronic failure to pay fines or fees among those fined will also fail to achieve general deterrence. Additionally, despiration over inability to pay fines results in less public safety rather than improved public safety. In this case people drive without licenses, fail to get their cars inspected, or drive without insurance. In the worst case scenario economic despiration can lead to new crimes (shoplifting, theft, drug dealing, etc.) to get money to pay the fines or fees.

Justice policy is about an effective response to social problems that produce the desired results supported with appropriate resources. Symbolic responses to "send the right message" are usually make poor policy, are ineffective, waste resources, and counterproductive.

The symbolic punitive desire by politicians to look "tough on crime" has produced an incredible array of ineffective and often destructive policy in the name of public safety.

jimbino said...

Your statement:

"It's precisely that slippery slope that's most troubling to me about this fee because it creates a situation where surcharges snowball, harming public safety instead of improving it by making it more likely people will drive without a license or insurance."

is logically untenable. Regarding driving without a license: if there were no surcharge, good drivers might gain a license, but bad drivers would still fail the test, with the result that they would continue driving without a license, just as they did before. NO CHANGE

Regarding driving without insurance: the fact of "moral hazard" carries the implication that the insured driver is a worse driver, since now being insured he can drive more recklessly without suffering the penalties personally.

This is a perfect example of why every lawyer, judge and legislator in this country needs some grounding in math and science, or at least a dose of Paulos' Innumeracy. As it is, almost all those types are ignorant of math all the way up to SCOTUS and COTUS.

Much more humility is needed in the legal profession regarding their pronouncements in matters of math and science.

R. Shackleford said...

I'd like to see this ridiculous program canceled. Just another revenue generating scheme completely devoid of ethical substance. I firmly believe we pay enough taxes without resorting to shady semi-government collection trickery.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jimbino, you misunderstand me (or else I don't understand you). The slippery slope comes, e.g., when a no-insurance ticket gets a surcharge, nonpayment gets a DL suspended, then a no-DL ticket gets another surcharge and the fees build on themselves until someone of meager means can't afford it. That happens a lot.

Don said...

to anon 10:14 A.M. The primary goal of these surcharges is not and never has been "specific deterrence". It is a revenue measure. Even the idiotic lege who passed the act admitted that. Problem with bad legislation, it's almost impossible to undo, even when most think it should be undone. Jimbino, most lawyers, judges, and legislators have about as much grounding in math and science as anybody else. You need some grounding in making sense.

Anonymous said...

According to the PEW Report ( Are you ready? )

• 1 out of 22 adults in Texas vs 1 out of 36 in California are under correctional control
• The actual population in Texas under correctional control in Texas is 798,00 vs 755,000 in California
• The actual population in Texas under probation is 436,000 vs 354,000 in California. The more people under probation in Texas, the more money the State makes because “probation” is a “revenue producing cost center in the State as it is a profit center for the State. And if you don’t pay the monthly probation fee, you get picked up on a “blue warrant” and can’t get out of jail until the judge sees you. This is “enslavement” and is unconstitutional as it creates a “debtors prison”.

The Drivers Responsibility Program is unconstitutional. It has no relative benefit to public safety but is a money scam designed for revenue maximization” or financially gang raping the poor due to an inadequate tax structure in a State that benefits the rich and penalizes/taxes the poor. These surcharges are levied on “crimes of poverty” that enslaves its citizens creating a debtors prison without any hope of an escape. Further more, these fines under the Drivers Responsibility Program

• increases the number of uninsured and unlicensed drivers
• increases the number of broken families, lost jobs and destabilization of lives which probably increases the # of alcoholics, more DWI’s and accidents ( Does anybody really think people will stop driving even without a license? )
• increases the number of full time and real criminals
• increases the costs of overcrowd jails that are cesspools of disease and staff infections
• increases the costs of free legal council for indigent defendants
• eliminates health clinics for the poor ( Dallas is closing 3 of its 4 clinics )
• eliminates needed services by those that need the services
• instills a sense of loss of hope and no light at the end of the tunnel by those caught up in a criminal justice system that enslaves its citizens for “crimes of poverty” creating a debtors prison.

And this is in a State of Texas

• that is 48th in the United States in literacy
• that has the highest real estate taxes per $1,000 value of a home
• that has the 3rd highest pollution rate
• that has the 2nd highest sales tax
• where 10% of the population or 2.3 million people have outstanding warrants
• that refuses $500 million in stimulus funds from the Federal Government but then requests 2 Billion so it can build trains
• that covers the smallest % of unemployed of any State in the United States
• where 4 out of 5 people do not qualify for unemployment
• where 400,000 children are uninsured but where 50% are eligible for Medicaid or Scrip
• where 500,000 children are eligible for Medicaid but are not due to lack of staffing by the State of Texas
• that has the 3rd highest teen pregnancy rate
• that allows “pay day” companies to charge the highest rate for pay day loans of any state in the United States which is nothing more than financially gang raping the poor
• where 26.5% of the Texas population lacks health insurance which is the highest in the United States
• where 20.3% of children in Texas are uninsured which is the highest in the United States

Chally said...

Jimbino: Normal auto insurance policies contain a clause that cancels them if your license is suspended. So if you can't afford to pay the fee you lose not only your license but also your insurance. Then you get desparate...

Jackie Buffalo said...

It's really just about a criminal offense to be poor in Texas.
When I sat in the holding area at Lew Sterrett in Dallas, on the morning of my birthday, November 20 2007, I asked the other girls why they were arrested. By far the majority who sat in there most of the day were picked up for outstanding traffic violation fees. These looked to be mainly Hispanic working women with children at home working at low paying jobs (many of them two jobs plus the hubby out working a low paying job) and who couldn't afford to pay the fines. I was in for not paying my probation fees (after I had to give up my teacher and daycare licenses after a SIDS death occurred in my home in 2000), and for operating a website (; basically the same as contempt of court since I was ordered not to post any of my case information on my website. The prosecutor who knew that my son's father and his family was kicking in to pay our rent told the judge that we were "living in a gated community" - along with photographs of our access gates, implying that I was holding out on the great State of Texas. Meanwhile, the courthouse goonies had their bud, the mailman, take our rent for the month of November, in the attempt to get my son and I evicted at the same time as my arrest.
I can tell you that it is very difficult not to have contempt for this kind of behavior and system.
What I saw while I was in Lew Sterrett for 8-9 days over the Thanksgiving holiday resembled nothing of what this country was founded on. Really shocking.

Meanwhile, I had a chronically ill child at home. The 2 fine officers who came to the door the morning of my arrest told my son that they were there "to investigate the claims of a 12 year old being neglected". My son told them that he didn't know where they got their information, but that it wasn't correct. They couldn't even get his age right, missing it by four years.
Well, what is being posted here on Grits is all fine and good, but I can tell you that the poor in Texas already know what time it is.

Anonymous said...

This whole program is so unethical in the first place, this is like the pot calling the kettle black.But I believe in what goes around comes around and I hope this comes back to bite them all on the ass!

Anonymous said...

One more tragic example of the damage Rick Perry has done & will continue to do to the state of Texas. Has anyone thought about how much of the surcharges collected are being put toward paying the salaries of MSB employees? Shameful!! I have lived in Texas all my life, and am seriously considering re-locating to-anywhere but here!!