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Senate Moves to Reform Driver Responsibility Program

The Texas Senate voted Thursday to weaken the state’s Driver Responsibility Program, which critics say unfairly penalizes poor Texans.

Sen. Rodney Ellis D-Houston reads information during the Senate Committee on State Affairs as they listen to testimony relating to guns on campus and open carry on February 12th, 2015

The Texas Senate on Thursday approved a proposal that would weaken the state’s Driver Responsibility Program, which critics say has unfairly penalized poor Texans.

The program requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses to pay annual surcharges, on top of court fines and criminal penalties, to maintain their driver's licenses. More than 1.2 million Texans currently have their driver's licenses suspended under the program, which was created in 2003 to address a budget shortfall. Some lawmakers have defended the program because it sends millions of dollars each year to hospitals and trauma centers.

Under Senate Bill 93, the surcharges would continue but drivers would no longer have their licenses suspended for failing to pay. 

“It’s time to give hardworking Texas families relief from this broken double jeopardy program that is doing more harm than good,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the bill’s author, in a statement.

It passed 28-3 and now heads to a House committee.

“I am glad to see the Legislature recognizing when things do not work out the way they were intended and having a willingness to rectify it," said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, in a statement.

Critics of the program want it repealed altogether. The original version of the bill would have abolished the program, but it was tweaked in committee.

"We are still going to go for the repeal – always — but in order for that to work out, we need the money," said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "That will take a coordinated effort."

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The bill must clear a House committee before a Saturday deadline in order to be considered by the lower chamber. Past attempts to end the program have been unsuccessful.

Eva Hershaw contributed reporting.

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