Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Bills chip away at Driver Responsibility surcharge catastrophe

Grits is swamped so posting will be light for a couple of days, but I wanted to jump on the blog to mention two bills your correspondent is supporting this week related to the ignominious Driver Responsibility surcharge.

First, yesterday in the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, Rep. Senfronia Thompson offered up HB 2671, an excellent bill which would leave the surcharge intact (since legislative budget writers can't seem to pull themselves away from the money teat) and instead eliminate drivers license suspensions as an enforcement mechanism. My testimony mostly batted cleanup and Rebecca Bernhardt from the Texas Fair Defense Project performed the heavy hitting. See the hearing video here; it's the second bill up at the 3:35 mark.) She did a great job and rather than iterate her points here, I'll encourage those interested to watch the short but informative hearing.

Regular readers know the drivers license suspension aspect of the surcharge is a huge problem: Around 2 million people out of Texas' 15+ million drivers have had their licenses revoked over the surcharge, with 1.3 million or so continuing to drive without a license. Indeed, when the Justice Department initially refused to approve Texas' voter ID statute, the main reason was the number of people who had valid ID when they registered to vote but did not now. Most of those folks lost their licenses because of nonpayment of the surcharge.

John Hawkins of the Texas Hospital Association testified against the bill because, he said, 75 percent of surcharge payments come after license revocation, which is a shocking figure, if true. That's further evidence that this program has utterly and profoundly failed at every goal but revenue collection, and even on that it has far underperformed expectations.

This committee has significantly turned over, including a new chair, Larry Phillips, since they studied the issue in an interim charge last year. But I was pleased to learn that several of them already understood the surcharge is a broken system and a significant problem. If we can't abolish the surcharge outright, HB 2671 would be a big get.

Second, this morning I'm headed to an 8 a.m. hearing at the Senate Transportation Committee which will hear Sen. Juan Hinojosa's SB 1056, which would apply the indigence finding for appointed counsel to what's presently a separate, post-conviction indigence finding to waive the surcharge, meaning that if you're poor enough to have a lawyer appointed, your surcharges would be waived.

The Lege in years past approved two versions of indigence programs for the surcharge: One created by rule at the Department of Public Safety and one set in the courts which is less widely accessed by defendants. Conflating the two indigence determinations, as Hinojosa's bill would do, would contribute to judicial economy (why make two separate indigence determinations in the same case?) and allow more indigent defendants to have their surcharges waived.

Who knows what chances these bills have of passage? It'll be a week or more before we know if they'll even make it out of committee. But at least the legislation is helping keep the issue on the state agenda after Rep. Larry Gonzales decided not to seek abolition of the program this year. His reason was that budget writers couldn't find $230 million to fill the revenue gap, despite a House budget that leaves $17 billion unspent and drops a cool half billion on superfluous border security. Politics is the art of the possible, it's been said, and Gonzales determined abolition was not. (Sen. Rodney Ellis filed SB 93 to abolish the surcharge, but it's yet to receive a hearing.) Barring abolition, it's only possible to chip away at the problem.

Hinojosa's and Thompson's bills would help folks going forward but not those already mired in unpaid surcharges. As I told the House committee yesterday and will iterate in the Senate this morning, on one of these bills (or some other related piece of legislation), the Lege should tack on an amendment requiring the Department of Public Safety to hold another Amnesty event, and this time to advertise it more heavily so more people will learn about it and access it. Even if the surcharge were abolished tomorrow, there'd be a lot of cleanup work to undo the monumental damage this misbegotten program has caused.

1 comment:

Chris H said...

Protip on posting legislature video clips. If you add the parameter &entrytime=[time in seconds] , you'll link directly to the start of where you want. You can also optionally add the parameter &stoptime=[time in seconds] to end the clip.