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Texas Legislature 2019

Texas Senate passes bill to kill program that critics say can trap poor people in a cycle of debt

The bill to end the unpopular program, which adds annual surcharges on top of traffic fines — and prompts the suspension of millions of driver's licenses — is headed for Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. If he signs it, pending surcharges will be dropped.

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Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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Texas may finally kill the widely unpopular Driver Responsibility Program, which critics say leaves low-income drivers with costly bills and without their licenses. A bill to end the program soared unanimously through the Senate on Wednesday — and if the House concurs with the upper chamber's minor changes, then the bill will head to the governor's desk.

(Update: The House agreed with the Senate's changes on May 23 and the bill now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott.)

As of January 2018, 1.4 million Texas drivers — nearly 10% of the state’s drivers that year — had suspended licenses for not paying the program's surcharges. Those yearly fees, which must be paid in addition to a ticket, range from $100 for a few traffic infractions to $2,000 for driving while intoxicated. Under the bill, any pending surcharges under the Driver Responsibility Act would go away.

“Everybody said it would not go anywhere, but it finally has,” said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, during the Senate floor debate Wednesday.

The Driver Responsibility Program was created to help fund the state’s trauma care system, an expensive regional network of emergency medical and hospital services. Killing the program has been difficult because legislators have struggled to find an alternative funding source for trauma care. But under this new proposal, hospitals say they would get a more sustainable source of funding — and extra money, to boot.

In lieu of additional yearly charges for traffic violations, House Bill 2048 would add $2 to yearly automobile insurance fees and increase state traffic fines — a portion of the fine paid for any traffic violation — from $30 to $50.

It would also add additional fines of up to $6,000 for those who drive while intoxicated. Criminal justice advocates worried that this would be a tough fee for low-income drivers to pay, so state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, one of the bill's co-authors, added a provision that would allow judges to waive or reduce fees for low-income drivers.

A proposal to kill the Driver Responsibility Program died in the Senate two years ago after it cleared the House floor and passed out of a Senate committee. HB 2048 has garnered support from hospitals, trauma care facilities and criminal justice reform advocates. But insurance companies worry that the extra $2 bump is regressive, which means the fees take up a larger portion of poor people’s income than rich people’s. However, supporters of the bill say the extra increase is a small price to pay to relieve the financial burden imposed on low-income drivers and generate a sustainable revenue source for trauma centers.

After the bill's successful passage through the Senate, advocates across the state and nation — like the Texas Fair Defense Project, the Texas Hospital Association and a staffer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas — tweeted their praise for what's been termed a "HUGE" victory.

“Texas suspends more driver’s licenses than any other state by far, and this is by far the biggest program,” said Emily Gerrick, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project. “This many sessions of work that are finally coming to fruition.”

Disclosure: The Texas Hospital Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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