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Lawmakers Call for End to Controversial Driver Responsibility Program

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday called for the repeal of a state program that requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses to pay annual surcharges to keep their driver's licenses.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, speaks against the motion to adopt the Senate version of the state budget on May 4, 2011.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday called for the repeal of a state program that requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses to pay annual surcharges to keep their driver's licenses. 

Senate Bill 93 by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is the latest legislative attempt to abolish the Driver Responsibility Program. Standing beside Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, and Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, Ellis said at a news conference that the program has trapped many Texans in a cycle of poverty, requiring them to pay multiple times for a single traffic offense. But past attempts to end the program have been unsuccessful, with some lawmakers citing the revenue the program sends each year to state hospitals and trauma centers as a reason to continue it.

Supporters of the bill are trying to reframe the failings of the program, emphasizing the high human cost of a relatively small amount of revenue.

"This is not an issue of whether it's left or right; this is an issue of what's right and what's wrong," Hall said at the news conference. He said the program had not worked as the Legislature intended it to and that it was time to explore alternative sources of funding. "The trauma units need money, but I don't see using people's lives the way they are as the right thing to do."

The program, which began in 2003 and is run by the Texas Department of Public Safety, levies surcharges once a year for three years on top of fines and legal fees attached to certain traffic violations. The surcharges range from $100 a year for an accumulation of traffic tickets to up to $2,000 per year for drunken driving. Failure to pay can result in a suspended license. 

Edna Staudt, justice of the peace in Williamson County, called the program unconstitutional, explaining that the justice system already ensures due process and punishment in the case of traffic violations. "Once the court is through with the ticket ... that is when this program starts," said Staudt. "The 1.3 million people we have without licenses were either uninformed or were unable to pay those surcharges; it wasn't that they weren't punished."

For Joseph Yeno, from Tyler, the Driver Responsibility Program has come at a high cost. He received a letter in 2009 informing him that his license had been suspended for a ticket he received in 2003. In the 12 years since, he estimates that he has received 35 tickets for driving with a suspended license and that he owes $5,000 to the state.

"This program has destroyed my life and career," Yeno said at the news conference, with tears welling up in his eyes. "This is not just about the 1.3 million without licenses; it is about their children. How can you get arrested for taking your son to school? For taking your son to church?"

But opponents of the bill expressed concerns to the the Senate Committee on Transportation, which considered Senate Bill 93 in a hearing on Wednesday. The measure was left pending in the committee.

"Repealing the Driver Responsibility Program without a replacement piece of revenue would seriously undermine the trauma care system in the state," said John Hawkins, the senior vice president of advocacy and public policy with the Texas Hospital Association. He said that the program adds $84 million to a fund that reimburses hospitals for uncompensated trauma care that costs the centers an estimated $230 million a year.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition estimates that only 40 percent of the surcharges levied by the program have been collected. As a result, the revenue generated by the program has been far less than the state anticipated.

"People have to eat, and in order to eat, ­they have to work. In order to­ work, they have to drive," said Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, who said the revenue generated by program was "budget dust." 

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and the Texas Hospital Association are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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