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Lawmakers failed to end troubled Driver Responsibility Program

Mandy Mann thought she had paid her dues for a 2009 traffic stop. But six years later, the Waco mom was stopped and arrested — for failing to comply with the state's troubled Driver Responsibility Program.

Listen to Mandy Mann detail her nightmare navigating the Driver Responsibility Program.

For six years, Mandy Mann drove herself to work and carted her four kids across town — without knowing she was driving on a suspended license.

That changed in 2015, when she was pulled over and arrested. 

Her crime? Failing to comply with the terms of the state's Driver Responsibility Program, which the Waco single mom had been enrolled in after being cited for driving without insurance back in 2009. 

The state's Driver Responsibility Program began in 2003 — an effort by state lawmakers to enhance public safety and boost funding for uncompensated trauma care in Texas by charging additional fees for certain offenses, such as speeding, driving while intoxicated and driving without a valid license.

Before a slate of new laws takes effect Sept. 1, we're taking a look at a few measures that didn't pass the finish line during 2017's regular legislative session — and how those "dead bills" affect individual Texans. Read the first story in this series.

Today's bill:

House Bill 2068 would've abolished the Driver Responsibility Program, which automatically suspends a driver's license and levies additional fees and charges for certain offenses. The program's been plagued with problems since it began in 2003 and faced criticism that it disproportionately harms the poor. The bill passed the House but never got to the Senate floor for consideration.

Over the years, the program has faced intense scrutiny for failing to properly notify offenders and collecting just half of the billed surcharges — and criticism that it disproportionately harms the poor by trapping them in a cycle of rising fees.

“What it really is is a system where people who mess up, we ... just beat them while they’re down,” Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell said.

Despite bipartisan support, state lawmakers once again fell short of ending the program during the 2017 regular legislative session.

House Bill 2068 passed the House but failed to make it to the Senate floor for consideration. The biggest obstacle to abolishing it has been the potential loss of trauma center funding.

Opponents of the Driver Responsibility Program say that particular bill wasn’t a great vehicle anyway. They argue it would’ve added $3,000 to $6,000 in penalties for driving while intoxicated and increased certain state traffic fines from $30 to $50.

“I feel like they make it impossible for people to get it back to normal.”

— Mandy Mann, Waco Driver

“The bill ... was more of maybe a gift horse, or at least a gift horse that you should’ve looked at its teeth a little more closely,” said Rebecca Bernhardt, the executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, an advocacy group that helps low-income people navigate the criminal justice system. 

Bernhardt says the bill would've further hurt the poor because it would have funneled more people into another program that doesn’t let you renew your driver’s license if you have outstanding fines or fees. 

Mann says she shelled out about $2,500 in fines and fees before she finally got connected with Texas Fair Defense Project, which helped her get all costs waived.

“I feel like if you go to jail, you bond out, and you do a probation and you do your steps, then you should be able to get yourself reinstated," she added, "but it's kind of impossible."

Unless lawmakers find a surprise solution in this summer's special legislative session, it will be 2019 before the issue comes up again.  

Live chat: Talk to our reporters about bills that didn't make it out of the regular session — and what's ahead in the special — Friday, July 14 at noon. Ask a question

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