Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Begging for crumbs on the Driver Responsibility surcharge

Here's what's bugging Grits today: This morning I got up first thing to testify on behalf of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in favor of a good bill tweaking procedures for indigent defendants to have their Driver Responsibility surcharges waived by the courts. The committee was receptive and Chairman Larry Phillips even indicated he wanted to pursue further relief to the extent it might fit within the caption of the bill, suggesting a stakeholders meeting that he said he'd attend. Despite the chairman's much-appreciated interest, however, it's hard to avoid the feeling that we're begging for crumbs and being roundly ignored on the issue by the folks who matter most: Legislative budget writers.

I know Judge Edna Staudt feels the same way. The Williamson County JP who's been one of the fiercest opponents of the surcharge testified "on" rather than "for" the reform bill because she didn't think it did enough. Personally, I'm less inclined to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. But I understand the impulse to reject less-than-half-a-loaf measures.

Everyone who cares has been told at the Texas Legislature that abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge is off the table in 2015 because leadership "can't find the money." To get rid of the program, they'd have to replace the money that goes to the general fund as well as cover the amount that goes to trauma hospitals. But even though there's lots of extra money available, nobody wants to spend it on this.

For the next biennium it would take up to $230 million to abolish the surcharge entirely, if you accept (and we must) this brand of budgetary thinking. For context, keep in mind that $230 million is just a tad more than 1/10 of one percent of the $209.8 billion all-funds state budget.

By contrast, we've been told to expect $4.6 billion in tax cuts, or twenty times what it would take to eliminate the Driver Responsibility Program. In other words, the Lege could eliminate the surcharge entirely and still give 95% of the tax cuts being proposed! Further, as R.G. Ratcliffe reported, "The proposed House budget leaves $2 billion unspent from general revenue and $11.1 billion from the Rainy Day Fund. The budget also includes $4 billion in retained dedicated funds that can be used to certify the budget as balanced." And that doesn't even get to hundreds of millions in new border security spending.

Combining unspent funds, "rainy day" funds, and unspent "dedicated" funds, the House budget essentially leaves $17 billion in tax dollars lying around in the couch cushions, with the Senate budget differing more in details than totals.

So what are we to believe when we see those numbers and yet legislators simultaneously plead poverty when it comes to abolishing the surcharge? "We couldn't find the money." It's just not credible. Yes, $230 million is a lot of cash. But Texas is a large, wealthy state with an enormous budget surplus. We can afford to pay for trauma hospitals in other ways.

If legislators cared as much about the 2 million Texans who've lost their licenses under the surcharge as they do the beneficiaries of the tax cuts, this program would already be history. It's a question of values and priorities, at this point, not really a lack of resources.

RELATED: Bills chip away at Driver Responsibility surcharge catastrophe.

UPDATE: The companion legislation to Sylvester Turner bill I was testifying for, SB 1056 by Hinojosa, passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee on Monday and has been placed on Thursday's Intent Calendar.


Constance Filley Johnson said...

Since money is all that seems to get anyone's attention, perhaps those of us who would love to see the surcharges abolished need to frame our argument differently... Maybe we need to be exploring what keeping the surcharges around is actually COSTING the taxpayer. How much do accidents involving unlicensed (and therefore uninsured) motorists cost the average Texan in yearly insurance premiums? How much do Texas counties spend each year on court appointed counsel to represent indigent defendants in DWLI cases (which is typically the end result of unpaid surcharges)? What does DPS spend yearly on the monumental task of tracking and notifying (manpower, paper, envelopes, postage...) those individuals incurring surcharges and related license suspensions for noncompliance? Etc, etc... I'll bet the actual costs related to keeping the surcharges around far eclipses the amount actually collected.

Anonymous said...

I agree. As a municipal court judge in a small, rural town, I am overwhelmed with citations issued to drivers that are DWLI due to surcharges. They are also the poorest. Yes, they are responsible for the initial citations that began the downward spiral into points and surcharges, but they literally fall into a hole that they are unable to climb out of. Personally, I feel that this is double jeopardy; the defendant pays his fine and then receives a letter from DPS/Municipal Service Bureau, advising him that he will owe surcharges for three years. I simply can't understand why our legislators don't grasp that this is like trying to get blood out of a turnip.

These are people that can not pay. As you drive around in your comfortable SUVs with OnStar and Sirius radio and see ragtag, beat-up cars, kids in the backseat and the windows down in the heat of summer, it is very likely that the driver is DWLI. And that is not profiling; that is a fact.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Grits, thanks a million for doing what you do on behalf of Texas as a whole and especially what directly benefits the public at large.

As the 'sayin' (correct that sp and go straight to hell) goes, people usually don't get involved in the ground wars regarding the reformation of broken (aka: Rigged & Fixed) systems until it involves them personally. Some Texans incorrectly believe that since they haven't been charged with this specific crime and suffered its subsequent financial consequences, it has nothing to do with them (and they would be wrong in their assumptions). If you: pay taxes, vote, rent or own property, wish to be employed and or have employees, it's got everything to do with you.

Speaking on the heels of two powerful comments from: Constance Filley Johnson & a municipal court judge w/ no name, it's time that we implore someone with forensic accounting experience and spare time to consider crunching the numbers and enlighten the public as to our part of the 'Tab'.

When Accounts Payable is greater than Accounts Receivable for an extended amount of time, the company either goes out of business or the bookkeeper goes to jail. Someone has been and still is being allowed to cook the books in Texas and the public needs to officially agree or disagree. We can't do both.


*"Everyone who cares has been told at the Texas Legislature that abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge is off the table in 2015 because leadership "can't find the money."

Am I the only one that thinks that the goddamn Lotto, and gas tax brings in enough funds to cover it and the double dipping trauma hospitals.

He's Innocent said...

So @ 09:41, why not speak up?

Speaking as someone whose spouse is in debt for the rest of his life, and thus me as well, to the state, I am saying SPEAK UP!

Until the REAL costs (as 10:26 details) of this are tallied, we taxpayers are on the hook. Did any media bother to mention the surcharges that Rosemary Lehmberg will incur for her DUI? It would have been a perfect segway into this issue. But no, it is all about the sensationalism with the MSM. Lehmberg had the opportunity as well to mention this surcharge. She could have piped up with something akin to "While I personally an handle this charge, my offices see folks everyday who suffer from it. This surcharge is killing too many everyday folks and subjecting them and their families to permanent poverty and the lack of protections from emergencies due to lack of insurance."

Nah, that'd be too easy and might tarnish her career. Righto.

So Mr/Ms Municipal Court judge, where are YOUR cajones to speak up?

Anonymous said...

Federal Class Action Lawsuit ... What was the name of that constitutional lawyer you wrote about in a different topic?

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more Constance Filley Johnson – but the thing is, we need to ask those questions now and demand answers, and when they can’t produce those numbers, that ought to be tale-telling that this legislative body is operating on blind assumptions and are making fact-less decisions while acting most irresponsible in their decision making.
I agree federal intervention is needed in this problem if not addressed this year. I believe Reynolds is a constitutional scofflaw and lacks any credibility whatsoever if Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB 2671 dies in committee. This will be the second session in a row that a bill to reform or repeal the Surcharge died in committee. How much are we willing to pay in fines that violate our constitutional rights? You know it would bite their ass if (1) Federal oversight was ordered in Texas to protect its citizen’s constitutional rights from their lawmakers and (2) the funding for the oversight came from the Rainy day fund. That, folks, is a pie in the face well deserved.

Anonymous said...

Just another way to put the poor in jail or prison for driving to try and make a living or just trying to survive my god! fines are hard enough to pay surcharges is just double rape people need a hand up not a kick in the teeth as there trying to get on there feet again

john said...

YES, only money is counted. No verbal argument gets through the bureaucrat/lobbyists. You can either get on board to bribe the constricted corrupted legislature, and/or judges, or be further enslaved. White people won't riot, anymore. The money wasted on stockpiling guns & ammo & dried food, for decades, should have gone--as corporations long ago mastered--to buying up lawyers. YES THEY'VE KILLED US. Private businesses and those of you milling the system hallucinate you can get by, working the system. Even courts don't go by the laws or their own rules, unless it suits them. The cops are now middlemen for us to fear & fight, a diversion to keep us from considering the dirty legislators that pay ONLY lip service to conservatism. REPRESENTATIVES IN NAME ONLY (RINOs).