Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Time to move NOW on Driver Responsibility surcharge abolition

The Texas Legislature has its best-ever chance to abolish the Driver Responsibility surcharge before it in HB 2048 (Zerwas). All the major interests have signed off. Early in the session, leadership appeared prepared to (finally) move on the issue, and the bill was voted out of committee in early April.

But the legislation remains stuck in the House Calendars Committee and has yet to be considered, much less set for a vote, on the House floor. Although, officially, the last House calendar is May 7, bills must be placed on a calendar several days before - probably by the 1st or the 2nd - to be heard before the deadline for the House to consider House bills.

Every legislator knows about problems with the Driver Responsibility surcharge because they all get constituent calls from people whose lives have been ruined by this ill-conceived government boondoggle. Nobody likes the program who's not receiving money from it. But those special interests were so powerful, the money had to be found for the program to go away.

HB 2048 solves that problem through several sources. It increases fees on traffic offenses by $20 and adds a $2 fee to auto insurance policies.

That latter is apparently the hold up: Insurance industry lobbyists are fighting the $2 fee. But legislators should ignore them. The problem with the Driver Responsibility program is precisely that it relied upon a small number of mostly impoverished people - folks caught driving with suspended licenses or without insurance - to pay for trauma-hospital care. But that's the sort of classic public good whose cost should be spread among everyone. After all, anyone may eventually wind up in a trauma hospital.

A few other, disparate critics object to the new, stiff criminal fines for DWI, which replicate high DWI surcharges under the Driver Responsibility program, re-labeling them a criminal fines instead of civil penalties. And to be clear, Grits isn't a fan of that part of the bill. We know 44% of drivers can't pay fines at that level (because that's how many DWI offenders didn't pay the identical surcharges), so there's a real sense in which they're setting people up to fail.

The flip side is, under the status quo, DWI offenders still owe the same amount, just as civil surcharges instead of criminal fines. The difference is, judges can waive criminal fines but cannot waive surcharges. So there's more prospect for relief under HB 2048 than those drivers would have otherwise.

To recap: There are 1.5 million people with licenses suspended because of the Driver Responsibility surcharge. Those surcharges will be voided and those folks can get their licenses back.

Moreover, while the DWI folks still get large fines, they only made up 12 percent of people with surcharges. So 88 percent of people who would have previously gotten a surcharge will avoid them going forward.

Helping 1.5 million people at a whack, plus eliminating 88 percent of the problem going forward, makes this a Very Good Bill. The DWI fines are an unfortunate compromise, but even for those folks, they're better off if judges can waive those fines.

Since this terrible statute first passed back in 2003, there has never been a better opportunity to eliminate this program than right now. Grits hopes the House Calendars Committee will set this legislation on the Major State calendar at the earliest possibility and leadership strongly supports it. Every day they dawdle risks Texas wasting two more years before this longstanding problem is addressed.

UPDATE: Hurray!! This bill was added to a House floor calendar for Monday, April 29, meaning it still has plenty of time to pass. Thank you, Calendars Committee!


imnotalone said...

So, reducing the size and scope of government is out of the question?

Avarice never takes a backseat to liberty.

Megan M. said...

Personally, I'm ALL FOR stiff punishments and severe consequences for drunk driving. The real problem with the DRP was that it also trapped people who posed no palpable threat to publc safety, whose only offense was an "administrative paperwork violation". I'm one of those folks. I don't have even so much as a speeding ticket or missed stop sign on my record, yet I've been caught up in this DRP trap for well over 10 years because of a lapsed insurance policy, which led to a suspended DL for not having insurance, which led to a surcharge for no insurance... which meant that I still had to get to work to pay the surcharge and get my insurance caught up... which led to getting caught by a cop armed with a license plate reader behind me at a stop light (and a hit on his electronic fishing pole)... and more tickets for DWLI and no insurance-- because of course my insurance was no good without a valid DL... and more surcharges, more suspensions, more fines, more jail time/arrest, another lost job, wash-rinse-repeat. In NO CASE was I ever cited for a moving violation. Not even a seat belt ticket. A person makes a conscious choice to drink. A person makes a conscious choice to get behind the wheel after drinking. It's very easy to simply make a mistake and miscalculate when your insurance is due for renewal, and one of my "no insurance" tickets came when I actually HAD valid insurance and even proved it and got the ticket dismissed, yet at the time, it didn't matter-- in a case like that, you STILL had to pay the surcharge, even if you had insurance, even if your case was dismissed without conviction, and even if you had simply forgotten to swap out your insurance cards. (Pre-2015, I believe-- the law changed, but the penalty wasn't dropped if you had already fallen into the trap). THESE are the ones who should not be thrown to the lions. Drunks behind the wheel who pose a palpable threat to lives and property deserve to have the book thrown at them. People who have a clean record other than a forgotten insurance card, or whose license is only invalid for unpaid and unaffordable surcharges imposed on them by the state over an administrative mis-step should not be left dangling in the breeze!

Anonymous said...

Yes it sucks! RT

Anonymous said...

HB 2048 passed the house 144 to 0. On to the senate next