Saturday, March 30, 2013

Did surcharge cause Voter ID repeal? A question to ponder as Texas House considers its elimination

The Dallas News last week (March 24) published a feature behind the paywall by reporter Terrence Stutz titled "Texas lawmakers want brakes put on driver surcharges for road violations," as well as an editorial on the public part of their site calling for the repeal of this "messy mistake of a law." Their timing was good because state Rep. Larry Gonzales' HB 104 has been scheduled for a public hearing on Wednesday, April 3 upon adjournment in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. I wholeheartedly agree it's time to eliminate the surcharge and find better, more reliable ways to fund regional trauma centers. However, vanity compels me to highlight a sidebar to the story which ponders a question Grits first considered last year in this post: "Was the Texas voter ID law undone by the troubled Texas Driver Responsibility Program?" Noted Stutz:
Although no study has ever been done on the link between the two, experts have speculated that the driving surcharge program — which has caused 1.3 million drivers to lose their licenses — made it much more difficult for Texas to defend its 2011 law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
In August, a federal appeals court refused to uphold the voter ID law in part because so many Texans lacked a driver’s license or state photo ID. Minorities made up a large percentage of them.

An analysis by the Texas secretary of state last year could not find matching driver’s licenses or state photo IDs for as many as 2.4 million Texas voters. That included 1.6 million who had licenses or IDs when they registered to vote.

Among those who see a link is Austin political consultant and criminal justice blogger Scott Henson. Based on the numbers, he sees a “definite correlation” between the DRP and the large number of voters who don’t have the photo ID most Texans rely on — a driver’s license.

“I’d love to see the state run another matching program to find out how many voters without a current ID have defaulted on one or more of the Driver Responsibility Program surcharges,” Henson wrote on his blog, Grits for Breakfast.

Henson, who has testified in favor of the program’s repeal, also added: “How many negative consequences must the state suffer from this ill-conceived revenue-generation scheme before the Legislature finally repeals it?”
Grits continues to believe that the surcharge was a major contributor to Texas' voter ID law being rejected - not the sole reason, perhaps, but neither at all an insignificant one. I also believe it has significantly harmed the economy.

The sticking point to repealing the surcharge this year has been hospitals' fear that, if Texas won't accept Medicaid funding, they'll be stuck with uncompensated care bills and lower disproportionate share funds from the federal government. So they don't want to let go of any revenue source while so much uncertainty hovers around them. I get that. But because the Lege has failed to distribute hundreds of millions of surcharge funds as part of its convoluted smoke and mirrors scheme to balance the budget, there's enough money in the account right now, says the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Rep. Gonzales, to keep paying hospitals at current rates for the next six years. That would give the Legislature three biennia to nail down its health finance decisions and figure out a more equitable way to fund indigent healthcare with fewer unintended consequences.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention: IMO the Lege should eliminate the surcharge now and worry over the next couple of sessions about how to pay for indigent healthcare in a future inevitably altered, for good and ill, by Obamacare. The solution must come as part of a broader fix to a protean health finance system which will be a big legislative priority over the next several years as Obamacare rolls out and the states adjust and react. (E.g., I've thought the surcharge money might be replaced with some sort of transaction fee on health insurance policies.) There's time to address those larger indigent care questions, even if the surcharge is eliminated this session.

In the meantime, if you want to tell the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee why this program should be stricken from the books, show up at the capitol on Wednesday. You can simply register against the bill (at the kiosks in the hallway behind the hearing room) or leave written testimony with the clerk if you don't have time to wait around all day.

See prior, related Grits posts:

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