Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Committee contemplates Driver Responsibility surcharge abolition

The Texas Senate Transportation Committee this morning held a belated hearing on SB 93 by Ellis which would abolish the Driver Responsibility surcharge. There was a good discussion (video here), a heartbreaking tale from a father in Tyler who went broke over surcharges and an inability to drive to work. (See more on his story.)

There was an especially poignant exchange between Sen. Bob Hall and one of the hospital representatives (who oppose abolition because they receive half the money). Hall declared sharply (see here), "What I just heard you tell me was that this bill was designed, was allowed to destroy people's lives in order to provide money from the state for your operation. And that's the same thing I read in the letters I see here from THA, and the TMA, and the others, that they are really only concerned about the money they get, they really don't care about what it does to people's lives." Ouch! That's gonna leave a mark! I've seldom heard a legislator confront the hospitals about about their own ethical position regarding this program. Bully for him! Hall, Huffines and Garcia wanted to vote the bill out today and the votes were clearly there, but the chair never brought it back up.

Nobody opposes hospital funding but the Lege has plenty of money to pay for it other ways, which was the subject of your correspondent's testimony in support of the bill on behalf of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Last year, the surcharge brought in just shy of $145 million, or a $290 million per-biennium. Hospitals get 49.5% and 49.5% goes to the general revenue fund.

Texas is a large and wealthy state and in the scheme of budget politics, that's not an insurmountable sum. If the Senate reduced its border security proposal to the amount suggested by the House, I pointed out, they'd free up about that much money. Similarly, if the House reduced its tax cuts to Senate levels ($4.9 billion to $4.6 billion), that would free up enough money to replace the surcharge. In the scheme of budget items, it's big but not insurmountable. I don't think property owners will even notice tax relief as their valuations rise. But the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by surcharges will certainly notice.

To me the question becomes, is ending the surcharge a priority for the Legislature? So far, regrettably, despite an enthusiastic reception from this committee, the answer appears to be "no." Budgets speak louder than words and though it's a goal that's within their grasp, nobody with the power to accomplish the task prioritized the issue this session. As such, this bill serves more as placeholder and trial run for some more serious, future effort when there's a budget fix in play. That's the only way this misbegotten monster of a program will ever be abolished.

MORE: See coverage of the bill from the Austin Statesman.


Anonymous said...

Misbegotten Monster is right. It was a horrible idea to start with, now they say they can't fix the mistake without "replacing the money". Hell, before the DRP there wasn't any money anyway so there should be nothing to replace. But sadly taxes take on a life of their own and rarely go away. I am old enough to remember the start of the Texas sales tax. Gov. John Connally said it was a "temporary tax that could go away in a few years'. What is it now, 8%?

Emmanuel said...

God bless you!


Denny Crane said...

Texas could raise the money by making everyone renew their driver's licenses every year and add $25 to go to the ER's or when you renew your vehicle add $25.

BUT the government loves to keep the poor people poor! I hope people remember those legislators on election day!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but owning and using a vehicle is an expensive proposition whether or not you have a driver surcharge to pay. How is that Mr. Yeno could afford gas, oil, repairs and insurance during the year, but not a $250 surcharge? How valuable was the vehicle? Could it be sold to pay the surcharge and replaced with a cheaper vehicle? How much does Mr. Yeno spend on monthly smartphone charges? Satellite TV? Cigarettes? Alcohol? Other 'luxuries' of life that were more important to him? Face it...everyone who owns and operates a vehicle daily for a year can afford a $250 surcharge. Don't have the cash? Borrow it and pay it back at $6 per week!

Peter.Marana said...

I have been living in Austin for six years now and have yet to get over how mean the politics are. Whether it is the DRP, the mass incarceration which wastes $1.2 billion a year (50% higher population than the average of the other 49 states), no air conditioning for inmates or a proposed voucher program that will only subsidize wealthy families sending their kids to private schools. Ya'll have drunk way too much red kool aid.

Anonymous said...


Constance Filley Johnson said...

I've cut and pasted a comment I made a few weeks ago on this issue... We've got to speak up!
Constance Filley Johnson, Municipal Court Judge
City of Victoria

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.

4/14/2015 10:26:00 PM

Anonymous said...

Congress should be ashamed of themselves for not getting this up for a vote. Honestly I'm surprised it was considered for abolition, it was a rare opportunity to right a wrong, & this is a disappointing result. I have a friend who's been unable to get his CDL back for the past two years because of past due surcharges. I watched him struggle working for $5 an hour less than he would have made. That is about a 35% pay cut for someone just barely getting by already. This law is likely well intentioned but it has some really negative effects on the already struggling working class.

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