The tales told by Texas drivers are eerily similar. A traffic ticket for a relatively minor infraction leads to fines of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. They can’t afford to pay or, worse, don’t even know they’ve been fined. They lose their licenses, lose their insurance, lose their jobs. Some even land in jail.
“I missed one payment for $80 dollars … and had my license suspended without my knowledge. I was then pulled over and now face even more surcharges and possible jail time.”
“This surcharge is ruining my credit and making it hard to pay all my bills.”
“My husband has lost his job due to this surcharge, and I am now the single supporter of a 4 person family in a very poor economy.”
“I owe 10,000, my unemployment is about to run out, I think I'm going to shoot myself.”
The stories scroll by one after another on an online petition to repeal a law called the Driver Responsibility Act. Nearly 4,000 angry and devastated drivers, who have either lost their licenses or in some way dealt with the exorbitant surcharges of the program, have lent their names to the effort — just a fraction of the more than 1.2 million Texas drivers who have lost their licenses because of unpaid surcharges.
Texas legislators approved the Driver Responsibility Act in 2003 to encourage safer driving and raise money for Texas roads and hospital trauma centers. The program attaches hefty state surcharges to traffic citations like speeding, driving without insurance, driving without a license and driving while intoxicated. In addition to paying the fines and court costs associated with the ticket, drivers must pay an annual surcharge ranging from $100 to $2,000 or their license is suspended.
Trouble is, the program isn’t generating the kind of revenue that lawmakers hoped. The Texas Department of Public Safety has sent Texas drivers bills worth nearly $1.8 billion since 2003. But most of that money — more than 60 percent — has gone uncollected. And more than 1.2 million drivers have lost their licenses because they didn’t or couldn’t pay up.
Tamara Shippy, a 25-year-old Houston-area college student, started the online petition effort in 2007 after both she and her fiancé lost their driver’s licenses. “This is nothing more than a revenue-generating program,” she says. “That just is really appalling to me.” Even as DPS is trying to change the program to make it easier for some to pay, the chorus of voices calling for its abolition continues to grow.
At the direction of state lawmakers, DPS is trying to find a way to get more people to pay and to help low-income drivers to get right with the law. Some lawmakers and critics of the program say the changes won’t do enough to fix the problems, and they want the surcharges repealed altogether. “Reducing fines will help,” says state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. “Ending the program will solve the challenge.”
Republican Dianne Delisi, the former lawmaker who wrote the bill creating the program, acknowledges it hasn’t been perfect but says funding from the surcharges has improved trauma care in Texas and shouldn’t be forsaken entirely. “It would sadden me to see the Legislature just throw out the whole baby with the bathwater,” she says.
In 2007, lawmakers gave the Public Safety Commission authority to find ways to help poor people pay the surcharges. But in 2009, when the commission still hadn’t done so, legislators approved a measure that required an indigency program.
Discussions about new rules for poor Texas drivers started last summer and then stalled. Initially, DPS staff proposed a program that would reduce fines for those who met certain poverty thresholds and another one that would allow amnesty in some cases to poor drivers. This month, DPS staff presented a more scaled-back indigency program that would allow those who are at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level (about $27,562 per year for a family of four) to pay a reduced fine if they show proof of insurance.
Rebekah Hibbs, a program director at DPS, says the proposal was scaled back for budgetary reasons at the request of the state Comptroller (state leaders, staring down a multi-billion-dollar budget hole heading into the 2011 legislative session, have asked state agencies to cut 5 percent from the budgets). Hibbs says DPS leaders have no idea whether reducing fines for poor drivers will increase or reduce collections under the responsibility program, so they designed a plan to ensure as little revenue loss as possible. “This is all a guess at this point, because we don’t know how many individuals in this program are indigent and, even of those individuals, how many of them will even wish to come into compliance,” Hibbs says.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, wrote the legislation that requires changes in the Responsibility Program along with Shapleigh. Turner says he supported the program when it was initiated in 2003 — Texas was facing a $10 billion budget shortfall, and the program seemed like a reasonable way to generate needed funds for hospitals and roads while encouraging safe driving. “The program has simply failed at meeting those objectives,” Turner says.
Like Shapleigh, Turner says he now favors repealing the surcharges altogether. “They’re just way too steep,” he says. The current DPS proposal doesn’t do enough to help the thousands of Texans who can’t afford to pay their fines and get back their driving privileges, Turner says. He wants the indigency level at least doubled, and he thinks lawmakers should seriously examine the program during the 2011 legislative session to assess whether it has met its goals. “The government should never be reluctant to make a correction when it recognizes it made a mistake,” Turner says. However, given the financial straights the state will be facing next year, Turner says he is doubtful lawmakers will abolish a program that brings in revenue, even if they recognize its flaws.
"It feels like a Catch-22"
Since 2003, trauma centers in Texas hospitals have gotten nearly $340 million from the surcharge funds. El Paso’s University Medical Center, for instance, received about $9 million to help fund its emergency room — only a fraction of the total emergency bills that go unpaid each year, says Tina Leech, director of trauma and neurosurgical services at the hospital. Last year alone the hospital reported more than $23.5 million in uncompensated emergency room services. Still, Leech says, as the hospital tries to keep its ER open, every penny counts. Then again, she understands that the Driver Responsibility Program has created financial problems for many Texans. “It feels like it’s a Catch-22,” she says. “How do we keep our program alive without harming our citizens?”
Travis County Court at Law Judge Elisabeth Earle says the huge surcharges have generated a continuous line of defendants who come before her after getting arrested for driving with a suspended license. “They feel like there is this never-ending hole they have gotten into,” Earle says. In many cases, she says, a driver will get a ticket for driving without insurance. After paying the initial fine and court costs (already hundreds of dollars), he'll then find out that he also has to pay the state another $250 each year for three years. He can’t afford that fine, so his license gets suspended, but he continues driving. He gets pulled over, goes to jail and winds up in front of Earle. “His answer is to plead no contest and spend more time in jail,” she says, because he still can’t afford the fines. But the problem with pleading guilty is that now the person must pay even more surcharges for the new offense — and he still can’t get his license back. But he continues driving because he needs to go to work, to take his kids to school, to live. And now he's risking yet another arrest and more fines. “It is something that has gotten out of control,” Earle says. Instead of making Texas drivers safer, she says, on the whole the program has made driving more dangerous and more expensive, because unlicensed drivers can’t get insurance. When they get in a wreck and can’t pay, it drives up insurance costs for everyone else. “If it’s not working, we’ve got to fix it in a way that it can work,” she says.
That’s what Delisi wants too. Since 2003, she says, money from the driver surcharges has helped create 31 new trauma centers in Texas. And Texas now has 16 level-one trauma centers, compared to 12 in 2003. “I’m trying to balance the worth of what this bill has meant to Texans so far and also the need of those who find themselves in a downward spiral, because of a habitual breaking of the law that they can’t seem to get out of,” she says. If she were in the Legislature now, Delisi says, she would change the program to give judges more leeway in deciding who should pay the surcharges. And she would implement a tough defensive driving program to go along with the surcharges. Delisi says she doesn’t oppose changes to the program, but she doesn’t want to see it repealed. “I don’t know a single piece of legislation ever that couldn’t be made better,” she says.
The thousands who have signed Shippy’s petition say a fix isn’t enough — they want the program ended. Shippy says she first found out about the Driver Responsibility Act when she was 18 and a senior in high school. She got pulled over and was ticketed for driving with an expired license. Shippy says she had no idea the program even existed. She paid her ticket and went about her life. More than a year later, she found out her license had been suspended. “I got something in the mail saying I owed a surcharge,” she says. “I thought it was a scam at first.” Eventually, Shippy says, she was able to gather enough money to pay off the surcharges and get her license reinstated, but the whole process got her fired up. She believes the program is unconstitutional because it essentially punishes drivers twice for the same infraction. So the prelaw student decided to start a petition to repeal the law that created the Driver Responsibility Program. “It's something I’ve been fighting most of my adult life,” she says.
Since she started the online petition, Shippy says she has received hundreds of e-mails from desperate drivers. “It’s just unreal what it does to normal citizens,” she says. “People have lost their jobs, their careers, their houses. I feel like I’ve been one of the more fortunate ones.” Shippy says she was disappointed when Shapleigh’s proposal to eliminate the program failed in 2009 and lawmakers instead required the department to just set up a program to help the poor pay. She hopes new indigency rules from DPS will help some people get out from under the crush of surcharges. But ultimately, she says, the law needs to go. And if lawmakers don’t get rid of it before she finishes law school, Shippy is considering taking her fight to court. “I want this not to happen to people,” she says. “That just completely stops someone’s life."