Thursday, February 21, 2019

Legislation filed to abolish driver surcharges

Yesterday, Texas Senate State Affairs Committee Chairwoman Joan Huffman and House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas filed companion bills which appear to be the leadership-driven abolition proposal for the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) that will be the main focus this session.

SB 918 and HB 2048 aren't perfect, but they're certainly headed in the right direction. The bills suggest an array of new funding sources for trauma hospitals, most of which are less objectionable than the reviled Driver Responsibility surcharge.

The bill increases a fee on auto insurance policies by two bucks, 60% of which would go to the trauma fund. It diverts money from a vehicle-registration fee that was already authorized to fund the DRP. And it raises the state portion of traffic fines on certain moving violations from $30 to $50, while lowering the municipal portion from 5% to 4%; however, only 30% of that money will go to trauma centers, with the rest headed to the general revenue fund.

Perhaps the most controversial funding source would simply rename surcharges for people convicted of DWI, calling them "fines" but applying them in exactly the same way.

So, "in addition to the fine prescribed for the offense," which is set by the judge, the bill proposes that first-time Class B DWI offenders pay a "fine" of $3,000 spread out over three years; $4,500 for second offenders; $6,000 for third. Thirty percent of this money will go to trauma hospitals; the rest goes to the state's general-revenue fund.

Here's the rub: When those same fines were "surcharges," a majority of drivers could not pay them. And in an era when the Federal Reserve tells us 40% of the American public cannot pay a surprise $400 bill without going into debt or selling something, there's little reason to expect that will change.

Unless judges are given the ability to waive or reduce those amounts at sentencing, this is going to create the same problems we saw under the Driver Responsibility Program with respect to high nonpayment rates for DWI offenders. Indeed, low payment rates inevitably will make these fines another unreliable funding source for trauma hospitals, just as surcharges never remotely paid hospitals as much as the Lege originally predicted.

In Texas, DWI is presently a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine on the first offense. This bill would add a mandatory $3,000 fine on top of that, which we already know from experience most people can't pay.

To Grits, the more rational approach would be to increase the max fine for misdemeanor DWI to $3,000 ($4,500 on the second offense, etc.), letting judges set the number, taking into account ability to pay. Then fund trauma hospitals from a general-revenue line item to ensure stability. (They're generating quite a bit of new, general-revenue money in this bill.) That way, legislators could signal their disapprobation for DWI by increasing fines, but avoid replicating predictable failures we've already seen from unpaid surcharges.

Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving supported allowing judges to waive or reduce surcharges in the interests of justice. The Legislature should do the same with DWI fines.

Regardless, all these problems with high fines are happening now in the status quo for DWI offenders, and the bill would eliminate surcharges for hundreds of thousands of people going forward. By any measure, it's an improvement.

CORRECTION: The original version of this blog post indicated that people with existing surcharges would not receive amnesty under the bill. That was inaccurate. Grits regrets the error.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

"I am SHOCKED that there are 'surcharges' in this Legislature, Rick!"

Shocked even more than the Lege is going to skim off the top of some of these for the general fund.

Do this enough, and it might come up with 10 percent of the money needed to boost state funding for schools that it claims it's going to do.