Lawmakers: Fixes Might Not Save Surcharge Program

Efforts to fix the problem-plagued Driver Responsibility Program ultimately may not shield it from the wrath of lawmakers.

The Public Safety Commission this month tentatively approved new rules for the program, a measure lawmakers approved in 2003 that attaches huge annual surcharges to certain traffic citations. The rules, which could be adopted in September, are meant to get more people to pay the fines and to salvage a revenue-generating scheme that many lawmakers have decried as a failure. Although the new rules are a step in the right direction, some lawmakers say the Legislature still may kill the surcharges entirely. “The reality is, this is a tax on a vulnerable population, and if it’s proven not to work, we shouldn’t hesitate in getting rid of it,” says state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

Then-state Rep. Dianne Delisi had the idea for the program when lawmakers were facing a $10 billion budget hole in the '03 session. It aimed to generate money for medical trauma centers and roads — without raising taxes — while simultaneously encouraging safer driving. In addition to paying fines and court costs associated with traffic tickets for violations like speeding, driving without insurance and driving while intoxicated, drivers must pay an annual surcharge ranging from $100 to $2,000 or or face suspension of their license.

One big problem: Most people don't pay the surcharges. The Department of Public Safety has suspended more than 1.2 million drivers’ licenses for failure to pay. The agency has issued Texas drivers bills worth about $1.8 billion since 2003, but more than 60 percent of the amount billed has gone uncollected. What’s more, thousands of drivers continue to get behind the wheel without a license, risking more fines and surcharges. “It has failed,” Turner says. “The proposed rules recognize that and at least try to turn it around and make it a workable program.”

Since 2007, Turner and other lawmakers have been trying to fix the program. That year, they passed a bill that gave the Public Safety Commission the authority to find ways to help poor people pay the surcharges. When that didn’t happen, Turner sponsored a bill requiring DPS to adopt an indigency program. The agency, in fits and starts, has worked on proposals for the indigency program over the last year. A prior recommendation, though, was narrow and only allowed for extremely poor Texans to receive a break from the surcharges. It was “chincy,” says Scott Henson, a public policy researcher who writes the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. This spring, the commission told DPS staff to draft a stronger proposal. The current proposal, Henson says, will not only help many Texans get right with the law but might even generate more revenue than the status quo. “They understand there’s a chance the Legislature might zero it out, and they’d much rather fix it,” he says.

The new rules include an amnesty program for drivers in default. Their surcharges would fall to 10 percent of the total owed but not more than $250, and they would get their licenses back as long as they make payments. The proposed indigency program would apply to those who earn 125 percent of the federal poverty level (about $27,562 per year for a family of four) or less. Their charges would also fall to 10 percent of the total owed, but not more than $250, and they would get to keep their licenses as long as they make payments. The rules also include an incentive program that would reduce surcharges for those who pay them off more quickly.

DPS staff estimate the amnesty program could generate about $18 million, while the indigency program could result in either a gain or a loss of revenue. But the incentive program, they estimate, could result in an annual loss of about $23 million. Because of that big price tag, the incentive portion of the plan would only be implemented at the department’s discretion. The other programs would be implemented starting in April 2011.

Denise Rose, senior director of government relations at the Texas Hospital Association, says she doesn’t anticipate the new rules will have a large fiscal impact on the Driver Responsibility Program. “The state’s only collecting a third of the surcharges that are out there, so I don’t know that it’s going to make a huge dent,” she says. Even if the state isn’t collecting all it could, she says, the hospital trauma centers that get the money badly need it. Since 2004, Texas trauma centers have received some $380 million from driver surcharges, which helps pay for care provided to uninsured patients. “It seems like a lot of money, but hospitals have reported in the same time frame close to over $1 billion in uncompensated trauma care,” Rose says. Though hospitals acknowledge the surcharge program is not ideal, Rose says they’d rather see it fixed than eliminated. “If the state was funding uncompensated trauma care in a different way, there wouldn’t be a need for things like the Driver Responsibility Program,” she says. “But that’s a whole a different argument.”

Tamara Shippy, a Houston college student on a crusade to end the Driver Responsibility Program, says the new rules help but that the basic premise of the program remains faulty. “It relies on bad behavior continuing in order to fund itself,” Shippy says. The state should find a more responsible way to fund hospital trauma care and stop making drivers pay twice for the same offense, she says, and she has collected thousands of signatures from Texans who share her sentiment. This summer, Shippy went to the state Republican convention in Dallas and tried to get the party to include opposition to the program in its platform. She has even started a Facebook page called Repeal the Texas Driver Responsibility Program. “I think it needs to be repealed no matter what,” Shippy says.

Shippy and the thousands of other vocal opponents will have some sympathetic ears when lawmakers reconvene in Austin next year. Both Democrats and Republicans have lambasted the program, and despite the rules changes, it will likely remain under the legislative microscope in 2011. “It’s fix the program or get rid of it,” says Steven Polunsky, a spokesman for state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. But lawmakers won’t know during the next session whether the new rules are a fix, because the DPS doesn’t plan to implement them until next April. By then, the 2011 session will be almost over. Rep. Turner says that if DPS is trying to put off lawmaker scrutiny and avoid the possibility of losing the program with the timing of the new rules, it won’t work. “We still should be obligated to thoroughly vet this Driver Responsibility Program,” he says, “and see whether it’s something that should continue.”

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