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Lawmakers Compare Unpopular Driver Surcharge Program to Debtors' Prison

State senators expressed bipartisan disapproval Wednesday of an unpopular program that levies large surcharges on drivers for traffic offenses, with several calling for broad changes or scrapping it entirely.

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Editor's note: Correction appended.

State senators expressed bipartisan disapproval Wednesday of an unpopular program that levies large surcharges on drivers for traffic offenses, with several calling for broad changes or for scrapping it entirely.

The Driver Responsibility Program, created in 2003 to address a budget shortfall and promote more responsible driving, requires drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses, such as speeding and driving while intoxicated, to pay additional annual surcharges on top of any court fines and criminal penalties to maintain their driver’s licenses. Nearly 1.3 million drivers now have invalid licenses, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Some lawmakers have previously defended the program because it sends millions of dollars each year to hospitals and trauma centers. While state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, raised those concerns at Wednesday's Senate Transportation Committee hearing, others on the committee suggested seeking alternative sources of funding, as critics spoke of the hardships the program's penalties caused, such as lost jobs and stints in jail.

Democratic Sens. Sylvia Garcia and Rodney Ellis of Houston made comparisons between the program and payday loans scams.

“It just makes poor people poor,” Garcia said.

State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, likened the program to debtors' prison, a comparison that other senators returned to throughout the hearing.

“Obviously, it doesn’t bother a rich person, someone who has the ability to pay,” Huffines said. “But we’re creating a permanent underclass.”

During last year's legislative session, the Senate approved a proposal to weaken the program. That measure died in the House. However, another bill passed that reduced some of the surcharges. Senators' comments at Wednesday's hearing suggested a strong interest in either dramatically reforming the program or scrapping it entirely when the Legislature meets again next year.

Elizabeth Henneke, a policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, endorsed that approach and recommended using court costs and fees to replace any lost trauma care funding. She described one case she worked on in which a single DWI for a 67-year-old woman eventually escalated into $25,000 in fines and several prison stays.

Jennifer Quereau of the Legislative Budget Board said New York and New Jersey are the only remaining states with a similarly structured Driver Responsibility Program. Virginia repealed its version of the program, and Michigan is currently phasing its out, she said.

“We’re one of the few states that still has this draconian system going,” state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said. “I think we need to look at what other states have done that has had success."

Outside the hearing room, Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business said he was troubled by the way the program forces people who need to drive to work to risk exorbitant penalties.

“It’s failed public policy. It’s not working,” Hammond said, describing it as "double jeopardy." “In order for people to eat, they have to work, and in order for them to work, they’ve got to drive in most cases. So it’s just a cascading situation that gets worse and worse, and it doesn’t create the behavior it’s intended to create.”

Judge Jean Spradling Hughes of Harris County Criminal Court also spoke out against the program.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a public law with such dire unintended consequences,” Hughes said.

Asked by Kolkhorst what could be done to promote responsible driving absent the program, Hughes argued that people have to be raised to be responsible from childhood.

“We have a population that’s never going to change,” Hughes said. “The people that are going to flaunt the law are going to flaunt it. Even if I put them in jail for the maximum time, it’s not going to change their behavior.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Judge Jean Spradling Hughes of the Harris County Criminal Court. 

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Courts Criminal justice Transportation Budget Driver Responsibility Program