Sunday, January 31, 2010

Were indigency, amnesty programs for Driver Responsibility Surcharge secretly "dropped"?

The Dallas News today has a story on the Driver Responsibility Surcharge program that worrisomely neglects recent board-level activities on the subject at the Public Safety Commission in the last six months. Here's a substantial excerpt:
The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was designed to assess large additional fines – into the thousands of dollars apiece – to discourage certain offenses, such as drunken driving, and generate money for trauma care and highway construction. ...

And while the Legislature may give some relief to lower-income drivers in two years, a leading critic said the program remains a modern-day "debtors prison" for a large number of Texans. An estimated one in nine arrest warrants in Austin, El Paso and other cities are being issued because of the surcharge program.

"It's a complete failure," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation to kill the program last year. Shapleigh was able to insert language into a related bill that would waive surcharges for indigent Texans, but it won't be effective until the fall of 2011, and then only if it has no significant impact on the state budget.

"What's happening is that people can't pay their fines, and then they lose their driver's license. That means they can't get to work," he said. "It has a snowball effect that's hurting a large number of citizens."

Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the surcharge legislation into law, remains a backer of the program despite its troubles. In signing the measure in 2003, he cited projections indicating it would raise $1 billion for trauma care centers by 2008.

"The governor continues to support this program, but he expects the Public Safety Commission to continue looking for ways to improve it," said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry.

But the program never worked as planned. More than 60 percent of the surcharges – $1.05 billion – has not been paid. Of the 1.9 million Texas drivers who have been told to pay, about 1.2 million have not, nearly two-thirds of those in the Driver Responsibility Program. If drivers don't pay, their licenses are automatically suspended 30 days after their initial conviction.

The state has collected more than $672 million, but none of it has gone to highways. And just a fraction has gone to trauma centers, said Shapleigh, who noted that the original push for the program came during the state's budget crunch in 2003, when lawmakers were scrambling for new revenue sources. The money is sitting in the state Treasury. The law that created the program required that collections pass a certain threshold before money is allocated.
The story oddly doesn't mention that the Public Safety Commission in August ordered staff to draft rules implementing an amnesty/indigency program; most recently I was told they would come up at the PSC in February.

In that light, one is mildly alarmed about a sentence toward the end of the story declaring "The Public Safety Commission at one time was considering a partial amnesty and incentive plan to boost payments, but that effort has been dropped." If that effort has been "dropped," that's not anything that was ever announced to stakeholders.

The last public action by the PSC I'm aware of was a motion by Commissioner Tom Clowe unanimously approved at the September meeting directing staff to bring back a version of the proposed rules that would apply retroactively. At the time, commissioners seemed enthusiastic about the proposal. DPS staff have insisted since then that they wouldn't share the draft with the public or members of the Legislature until the board had seen them. Maybe the rules have since died due to some invisible, internal bureaucratic machinations, but that's not what I was told as of Friday.

Supposedly Governor Perry's office expressed concern last fall about the fiscal impact of reduced surcharge revenue, which probably accounts for the delays. But rather than view this as lost money - and keep in mind they weren't collecting 70% of it, anyway - from a free-market perspective, the suggested DRP amnesty rules in practice amount to a substantial tax cut for 1.2 million Texans. What's more, in some cases lowering surcharges to manageable amounts could generate higher payment rates that offset losses. And amnesty would give drivers incentives to become street legal and buy insurance, whereas currently the surcharge is a disincentive that spawns illegality.

In an election year, you'd think it'd be easier to sell a policy that de facto puts money in the pockets of 1.2 million Texans and reduces the rate of uninsured drivers. In my fantasy world where I have enough money to buy the list of 1.2 million DRP scofflaws from the state and send them direct mail, I'd love to see postcards showing up in these voters' mailboxes telling them, "Times are hard, you deserve a break." There's some latent political oomph behind this issue, in other words, if it were ever properly tapped - 1.2 million people is a lot of folks.

Time will certainly tell, and the delay lets us know something's going on behind the scenes, but who knows what? It probably can't be good. I'll keep rooting around to see what I can find out.


ckikerintulia said...

Well Scott, these people just ought not break the law, then there would be no surcharge problems. I think you know where my tongue is as I write this. Just thought I'd get the jump on some of your anonymous fans.

Unknown said...

Hopefully you do hear something grits. 7yrs I continue to be without a license! (no tickets since) Wanting to pay something I can afford.Until they lower monthly rates, they will not receive a penny from me! How about we get us 1.2 million that haven't paid and make some noise?! How can they be so stupid as to charge something that can't be paid! We will we cost them much MORE IN JAIL!

Ryan Paige said...

Didn't the Legislature direct the DPS to put an amnesty program in place by September 1, 2009?

Atticus said...

Ask Stutz where he got the "dropped" angle.

Anonymous said...

Sad. Fines should be less, but whenever someone is caught driving without a license, impound the vehicle.
If they don't pay, they don't get the vehicle back, and after 90 days, auction it off.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10% of Texas drivers have outstanding arrest warrants, 7:17. It's fine to say that but if anyone ever put your suggestion into action it'd cripple the state economy in a matter of weeks.

7:02, I emailed Stutz yesterday morning but haven't heard back.

Marie T said...

It's called trying to balance the budget. Companies fighting to stay out of bankruptcy will keep bad debt on the books to make the company look good. Write it off and suddenly, bankers will start circling like vultures. Perry is fighting for re-election and he is not about to sanction any thing which will uncover how poorly his admin. has actually governed. Take away $1.6 billion in receivables and the deficit looks even worse than it is. At the Corrections Commission hearings, Mr. Hightower was quickly replaced by someone who could talk faster and cloud the issue of how the medical care of inmates could be reduced 5% as requested without incurring new lawsuits. Same with unenforceable actions that sound good before the camera, but don't hold water when you try to enforce an unworkable policy. Check the money to see where the dirt is hidden.

Anonymous said...

There are two points that I would have like to have seen in this article: a)New Jersey has a similar surcharge on fines and these same surcharges have been difficult to collect. 2)I have been doing an internet food stamp survey on the news topix sites, asking it you have ever been on food stamps due to divorce, disability, medical costs, loss of job, DUI, traffic fines, mandatory auto insurance, etc, and I was puzzled by the numbers coming from the Texas cities, indicating traffic fines were the reason for needing food stamps.Now I think I know. Texas has around 3 million on food stamps and another one or two million eligible but not participating. Any of these millions who want to, can pay a 100$ surcharge and turn around and get 100$ in food stamps.(another method would be to go delinquent on the rent, or go down to the food bank.) I would like to ask the author of this surcharge bill if that is happening, but I am sure he doesn't know, and isn't going to find out.

Another thing is that if there is an increase in food stamps due to these surcharges, that is required by law, to be listed in the fiscal note of the surcharge bill since there is an increase in expenses to the Texas DPHHS. Since it looks to me that the author of the surcharge bill or whoever is responsible for the fiscal note of this bill, is BREAKING THE LAW. But let's just ignore this violation of law and just go after the poor. Maybe we should put a surcharge on the budget director (or whoever works on fiscal notes), and suspend his driver's license.

If you want to see some examples of Texan's listing traffic fines as the reason for needing food stamps, type the following into your search engine "Wichita Falls news topix" and click onto the forum icon and type "food stamps" into the search engine.

I have another food stamp survey that was done in Billings, MT, which lists 18 of 96 food stamp applicants in October of 2004 indicating fines, DUI, and mandatory auto insurance costs were a reason for needing food stamps. Go to

My email is at the site.

tjohn20717 said...

That stupid surcharge program has done nothing but create a whole new class of un-licensable and uninsurable drivers. It was a bad idea to start with and the surcharges were set way too high. It has done nothing but increase the number of people out there with no coverage and no chance to get it.

Anonymous said...

If you don't drive without insurance or drive drunk it's not a problem.

Peter Wang said...

Every time someone is injured or killed in a traffic crash, it causes incredible manage to families, society, and the economy. Even "only property damage" crashes can wreck a family budget. I am sorry that many reckless drivers are poor, but if they can't take the time to slow down and drive responsibly, then they shouldn't drive. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It isn't worth it to the rest of us that they should put us all at risk of death, especially us bicycle riders, so that they can get to their minimum wage job. If Texas makes it too hard for them to live, well, maybe they need to leave and go somewhere else.

Tamara said...

Hello Mr. Henson,

Thank you so much for following this issue! Despite a failure to repeal the DRP during the last leg. session, I am continuing to fight for a repeal by collecting petition signatures and stories from people all over Texas.

The very idea of a 'surcharge' creates a dangerous precedent that is nothing more than a loophole that allows the state- through a private company- to arbitrarily enforce consecutive rounds taxation and double jeopardy without any due process.

Thanks again for your continued coverage of the issue and the efforts to repeal the DRP.

Many Thanks,
Tamara Shippy

Anonymous said...

It Makes me sick to my stomach to hear people say this 13 thousand dollar debt is my fault. and i should have just had insurance. You are the people pushing me over the edge. I have no car i have no Job. All because i could not afford a greedy surcharge. What will it take! This law has Brought me to suicide and anger! i want to take Everyone off the road! I want you to To Ride a fucking bike for 6 miles Just to go get some Food! Then almost get killed by passing motorist as you try and carry your Fucking food. I will MAKE YOU !!!!!!

Phil Phifer said...

I have two surcharges and they were not due to drunk driving or being without insurance. It is a long and drawn out tale that would make you cry and sing sad songs. Suffice it to say that the people who claim, "slow down, don't drive drunk, or pay your insurance and this won't be a problem" are ridiculous.

It is never a problem until it happens to you. In many ways this law is unfair and unjust to all economic groups. First you cannot just pay the entire fine. It must be paid in three year installments. In other words every year for three years you get to pay for the privilege of driving the Texas roads.
A license is suspended for failure to pay a surcharge. It is very easy to end up in a spiral of surcharges, suspensions, and fines from which a person cannot escape. The best course of action is to simply increase the amount of the ticket fine that will be paid to the court. In most cases, not all, many will go down and pay the fine simply to avoid any further contact with the law. With the surcharge the pain keeps coming, for three years.

The problem with people who support this law and think that you can just avoid all this by being law abiding is that they believe the enforcement is the solution to every problem. It is not. If you have made a law that makes criminals out of people who have committed misdemeanors, which is what moving violations are, then it is a bad law. Over enforcement of traffic laws serves one purpose and that is to raise revenue not create safety. Defeat Perry in the election and start over with someone new. No more governor good hair.

Peter Wang said...

Mr. Phifer, what were the causes of your surcharges? Reckless or inattentive driving? Speeding? It had to have been something, it didn't just hit you out of thin air.

Reckless, speeding, inattentive driving lead to people getting killed and injured. The emotional toll on survivors is unbelievable. The economic cost of crashes is staggering. You don't have to be drunk or driving w/o insurance to cause a tragedy.

American society doesn't take the risks and hazards of driving seriously enough. Every 60 days, we have a "9/11" on American roads. 30,000 die every year.

I am sorry if you all are bearing the burden of these fines, etc. Maybe someday if you get back on the road you will think twice before driving badly.

Driving is a privilege, not a right. It's unfortunate that we have such a car-oriented society, and such poor transit in Texas, that one can't get around well without a car.

But as a bicyclist, I applaud any kind of measure to change driver behavior to make them (us) drive better, and to take people off the road if they refuse to make the right choices for safety.

Unknown said...

Peter, I find your comments appauling!! Your reference to reckless drivers being 'poor' and their 'minimum wage jobs' couldn't be anymore tacky.....and untrue. This surcharge hits the working poor harder because they lack the disposable income that many of us enjoy.

People in the higher income brackets tend to skirt this surcharge with attorneys and/ or the influence their money has on public officials at re- election time. And if neither of these tactics work, they'll just write a check for the amount of the surcharge.

Poor people with families where the father and mother both work minimum wage jobs are hit hard. You and I probably don't have to worry about feeding a family of four, paying rent & utilities, clothes for the kids, maintaining an old, run down vehicle just so you can get to work and provide for your family.

Some of these people work soooooooooo hard only to be squeezed in the end. Yes, they may have minimum wage jobs. But where I come from, I was always taught that ALL WORK IS HONORABLE!!

Some people may have minimum wage jobs Peter. But, that is always preferable to your 'minimum wage mindset.'...........andy

Peter Wang said...

Andy Morin, all work is indeed honorable, but driving like a bat out of hell and putting the entire public at risk of death or injury is not. Low income people are just as capable of being safe drivers as wealthy ones; how many road-raging Lexuses do you see out there? Plenty! We need to have the same standards of behavior for all drivers - HIGH, and if standards are broken, then lots of penalties.

The northern Europeans have the right idea. They really come down like a ton of bricks on poor drivers. As a result, your risk of having your braincase emptied out on the pavement due to a dingbat reckless driver is much lower in those countries. And they get to drive really fast on the Autobahn, but they know how to drive safely.

Texans can't drive worth sh**, really, on the whole. Sorry, it's the truth.

I don't agree with your theory that the rich can get out of paying traffic fines by paying off elected officials. I am pretty close to elected officials in both parties, and if I made such a suggestion I think they would laugh, or just tell me to pay the fines.

This whole thing about disparate impact on the poor is really symptomatic of how sick our transportation and land use is. We are a 100% car dependent society. Even the working poor need cars. But they can't really afford the true full cost of ownership... safe, well-maintained vehicles, insurance, and part of the cost of ownership is paying up if you're a bad driver. But they have no alternative. So they become scoffalws.

Advocates for the poor, maybe like you, say, "Hey, let's lower the cost of ownership for the poor by lowering these fines". But lowering behavior standards and consequences makes the entire system less safe. Why stop there? Why not free driver's licenses? Why not no driver's licenses? Why require insurance? Aren't those all burdens on the poor, too? But that's just a race to the bottom... a rush to make our transportation system cheap and dangerous, just like that in a Third World country.

I submit that that can't possibly be the answer that the majority of the people want.

I don't mean harm to the poor; but I also don't want to be killed by a bad driver, therefore I don't think it sends the right message to go light on any bad driver, regardless of their income.

The ideal situation is we have a good transit system in the state, where you don't need a car for basic trips, like to work and back. Then if you lose your license, it doesn't endanger your ability to survive.

Unknown said...

I just wanted to give people an idea of what "type" of people this law is affecting. The following is true. In 2004, I came upon a road block and being a recent police officer's widow, figured they definately weren't looking for me. Well, I received a ticket for no insurance. My husband usually paid quarterly and with more important things on my mind, I let it slip. So, I paid the ticket in full. Fast forward to last week, my license was about to expire on my birthday and I went to the DMV to renew it. As I soon found out, my license could not be renewed untill I paid $260 a year for the next 3 years. This is a problem because I was "let go" by a school district last fall and I am on unemployment. SO, before you try to paint a picture of the people NOT able to pay their surcharge as "low life, drunk driver's and speeders", think of this story.

Peter Wang said...

Lesley, sorry for your loss of your husband. From what you say, though, it seems that you have been made a victim by the incompetent court which did not process your payment properly, correct? That's the real issue. Lots of people, unfortunately, get victimized by this type of error. It doesn't mean the laws in force were bad, but that the government acted badly. I'm sorry for you about this. You can't prove you paid the ticket? You didn't keep a receipt or send it certified mail?

Steff said...

Well, Peter, as enlightened as you like to think you are, apparently you don't understand what Lesley was saying. It isn't that she didn't pay the ticket the first damned time, it's that she paid, but just wasn't informed about the surcharge that would also be due, which (as is the whole point of this subject) is IN ADDITION to the original court fine. For three years!

I am a probation officer and I see this everyday. A person who has accrued a surcharge and is not able to pay is not necessarily automatically a reckless driver, as Lesley has indicated, just as someone who can afford to pay surcharges is not necessarily a good driver. What we're talking about here is financial status and the inability to pay. Think about it. A person like Lesley wasn't a reckless driver, but she cannot afford to pay her surcharge. More often than not, she'll still have to be able to drive to apply for a job to pay that charge, so she drives anyway. She gets pulled over and in turn gets more tickets (often multiple tickets, and consequently, surcharges, result from just one traffic stop), for driving with invalid license and no insurance (because what insurance agency covers someone who has no license?). Just with these offenses, her surcharges go from $260 a year for 3 years to $504 per year for 3 years. It is a snowball effect which apparently has trapped 1.2 million Texans, and their ability to get and/or maintain a job is seriously affected due to not having a license, which just perpetuates the cycle.

You keep saying Texans don't know how to drive. I imagine there's a good chance you are not Texan. Even if your broad and incorrect generalization was true, as it was stated earlier, people who don't like something about our state, whether it's bad drivers or bad legislation, can leave. So please, hop on your bicycle and depart. I think we'll be okay without you and your opinions.

Anonymous said...

The amnesty program is now in effect until April 2011. If you received your surcharge after December 2008 though, you will not qualify for the amnesty program. In spite of this rediculous condition, there is going to be an "indigent" program rolling out in April. Looks like this will be the oppertunity that many Texans are looking for...

Anonymous said...

To all you holier than thou's,there are some situations where this economy has effected our income to be able to pay these surcharges. When it comes to feeding my family or drive legally to the food line it becomes a decision that there is no right answer, do right by your kids or do right by the law. So until you perfect people out there have been there, shut the ---- up!