Lawmakers at the Capitol today debated eliminating a surcharge on traffic tickets that has been riddled with problems almost since its inception.
"We have created a bigger problem than we solved," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, whose bill that would abolish the Driver Responsibilty Program was debated in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.
The Driver Responsibility Program was created in 2003, the last time lawmakers were in a major financial bind. They hoped to generate money and discourage unsafe driving. The state attaches a hefty surcharge to the fines drivers already pay to the city or county when they are ticketed for a whole slew of moving violations, like driving without insurance, driving without a license and driving while intoxicated. The surcharges range from $100 to $2,000 per year for three years. The Texas Department of Public Safety suspends the licenses of drivers who fail to pay.
By almost any standard, the program hasn’t worked. More than 1.2 million Texans lost their licenses because they failed to pay the surcharges. Judges say their courts are clogged with misdemeanor defendants charged with driving without a license because they've racked up so many penalties. County law enforcement officials say violators with stacked up fees are adding to troubles in already overcrowded jails. And the DPS has been unable to collect more than $1 billion in fines they’ve issued since the program started.
"This is a perfect example of how a really good idea with a good intention can go really wrong," said Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Lawmakers have ordered DPS to make changes to the program since 2007, allowing amnesty programs and fee reductions for low-income drivers. DPS instituted an amnesty program that started in January and ends on April 17. Under the amnesty program, drivers whose licenses have been suspended are eligible if they had a surcharge assessed between Sept. 30, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2008, and were delinquent on payments. They are allowed to pay just 10 percent of the original amount owed for all surcharges combined up to a maximum of $250. And any payments already are applied to the reduced amount.
Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman, said about 12 percent — some 87,500 — of the 713,000 Texans eligible for the amnesty program have applied. "It's not as many as we would like," Mange said.
Despite its flaws, the program has generated more than $380 million for trauma centers across the state, money that hospital officials say is critical for their operations and has helped increase the number of trauma centers statewide. Denise Rose, senior director of advocacy and public policy at the Texas Hospital Association, urged lawmakers to give the new amnesty and incentive programs time to work. "We can't talk about it being repealed without replacing that revenue," Rose said.
Burnam said he agreed that providing funds for trauma care is necessary. Under his bill cigarette taxes would go up 24 cents per pack to replace the money the surcharges generated for trauma centers. He said simply changing the way the surcharges are collected wasn't enough. Burnam argued that the surcharge program is unconstitutional because it puts drivers in double jeopardy, punishing them twice for the same offense. "I think this is something that’s so fundamentally flawed that we can’t fix it," he said.
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