Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Comments due soon on Driver Responsibility rules

Decision time is drawing close. There's an item on the Public Safety Commission's just-released March 31 agenda (pdf) to set a public hearing for proposed revisions to the Driver Responsibility rules.

For those who'd like to share their views with the PSC on the rules, the public comment period for the proposed rules ends April 4, but that's a Sunday so presumably that will be extended to April 5. "Comments on the proposal may be submitted to Rebekah Hibbs, Driver License Division, Texas Department of Public Safety, P.O. Box 4087 (MSC 0300), Austin, Texas 78773; by fax to (512) 424-5233; or by email to DLDRuleComments@txdps.state.tx.us."

In the big picture I believe this program should be abolished, but the Public Safety Commission can't do that. They do, however, have authority to go much further than DPS staff did in the proposed rules published in the Register. I've been working with Amanda Marzullo at the Texas Fair Defense Project to suggest amendments to the proposed rules that are within the agency's power, and here are the main things we think folks should be asking for:
  • Create an Amnesty program to clear up noncompliance backlog
  • Use accurate documentation for the application process
  • Make language comply with 2011 statute waiving surcharges for indigents
  • Create incentives to encourage compliance for other low-income drivers
Last summer DPS proposed an aggressive Amnesty program for the 1.2 million drivers who've lost their license because of the surcharge, letting them pay a smaller amount to regain their license and get back into compliance. That's been dropped from the current proposal but it's arguably the most important part because a) it helps resolve the backlog of noncompliant drivers and b) would actually generate revenue from people who aren't paying.

With 1.2 million drivers noncompliant, if 1/3 of them took advantage of an amnesty program and paid an average of $250 each to get their driver's license back, that would generate $100 million in additional revenue (400,000 x $250) from drivers who otherwise weren't likely to pay. Why leave that money on the table?

As for using accurate documentation, the proposed rules suggest using income tax returns to determine indigency, but that can reflect outdated information. For example, since I lost my job last year as a result of the economic crash, looking at last year's tax return would tell you little about my current income. We'll be proposing standards drawn from other programs to reflect current income.

On the indigency program itself, oddly DPS chose not to waive surcharges for indigents, which will be required by state law beginning in 2011, instead merely reducing surcharges for drivers with incomes below 125% of federal poverty levels (FPL). That seems like a strange decision - to change the rules knowing they must be changed again in a year's time. There's a strong argument to be made for doing the job once and getting it right the first time.

Finally, 125% of poverty is pretty low (around $10,000 for an individual) and there are many low-income individuals above that threshold who still have trouble paying those fees. For these individuals, the Legislature authorized the PSC to create an "incentive" program to encourage compliance, and we think the PSC should create such incentives for individuals between 125-300% of FPL.

I'm glad the Public Safety Commission is finally taking up this issue, but the proposed rules don't go nearly far enough. The PSC should exercise authority granted it by the Lege in 2007 to more decisively fix this broken program.

See recent press coverage:

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