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Despite changes, driver surcharge program faces opposition

Critics of the Driver Responsibility Program are trying to get rid of the surcharge program.

*Correction appended

Efforts to fix the state's troubled Driver Responsibility Program have done little to help the millions of Texas drivers who have become entangled in the surcharge program, critics say, and they plan to tell lawmakers at a hearing next week that it's time to eliminate it.

"The program has gone wrong in every single way," said Ana Yáñez-Correa, the executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. 

The Driver Responsibility Program, created in 2003, requires drivers to pay annual surcharges on top of the fines and legal fees attached to traffic violations, such as driving without insurance or while intoxicated. Drivers aren't automatically levied surcharges for minor tickets for speeding or car accidents, but a point system is used to punish repeat offenders. If a driver accrues six points in a three-year period, a surcharge is assessed. Failure to pay results in a suspended driver’s license. 

Amid calls to abolish the program, which critics say unfairly penalizes poor Texans and requires drivers to face double punishment for a single offense, lawmakers have been working since 2009 to improve collection rates and reduce the number of licenses that are suspended. On Monday, the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee will conduct a hearing to assess the success of that work and to determine what's next for the program, which lawmakers have resisted nixing because it sends millions of dollars each year to state hospitals and trauma centers. 

Last year, state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, along with four other state lawmakers, filed legislation to repeal the program, but it failed. The lawmaker whose legislation created the program in 2003, state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, joined the call to end the program last year.

“It was a good idea, but it has had some very bad outcomes," Turner said then.

Since 2003, more than $3 billion in surcharge fees have been levied, but only $1.3 billion was collected — a 43 percent collection rate. As of March, the Texas Department of Public Safety had suspended the licenses of more than 1.4 million drivers because they failed to pay. 

The program is particularly problematic for the poor, Yáñez-Correa said. “It targets economically disadvantaged people who may be driving without insurance because they can’t afford it, let alone annual fees on top of a traffic ticket,” she said.

Annual surcharges range from $100 for three consecutive years to $3,000 per year for a second driving-while-intoxicated conviction. 

“If someone had to choose between medicine, rent and [paying the surcharge], they’re not going to pay the surcharge,” Yáñez-Correa said.

In 2011, DPS offered an amnesty program for drivers who had lost their licenses. They could pay a portion of the oustanding charges to get their licenses reinstated. The department also created a program for indigent drivers, those whose incomes are at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level ($27,937.50 annual for a family of four). Those who apply and qualify pay 10 percent of the total surcharges up to $250. Last year, DPS announced an additional incentive program for drivers whose total household income is above 125 percent of the poverty level but below 300 percent. The program reduces a driver's total surcharge amount by 50 percent and allows the driver to get his or her license back. 

But critics of the program say the adjustments were not enough, and many drivers aren’t aware that they might qualify for reduced payments. Under the amnesty program, which lasted three months, 713,444 drivers were eligible, but only 14 percent, or just under 100,000, took advantage of it. Since 2013, the indigency program has helped 35,905 drivers, and the incentive program has helped 1,151. According to a TCJC report, none of the programs increased the collection rate by more than 2 percent. 

The indigency and incentive programs are “only tinkering around the edges,” said Scott Henson, author of criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. “They don’t cut to the core of the issue, in part, because they haven’t been promoted correctly."

Even for those who know about the payment options, though, the application process can be burdensome, critics say. It requires applicants to get documents notarized and to provide financial documentation, including an income tax form. 

“It’s hard to get everything together,” said Vickie Tinkston, the director of adult probation at Hockley County in the Panhandle. “It’s kind of like pulling teeth, and they’ll send your application back if one thing is wrong, and you’ll have to resubmit everything again with a new application that’s notarized.”

Tinkston said most of her cases have some involvement with the Driver Responsibility Program. The surchage program only imposes civil penalties, but it suspends drivers' licenses when they can't pay, and driving without one is a criminal offense. Unlicensed drivers are often sent to jail, especially if they've been caught before. 

In small, rural areas like Hockley County, police officers often recognize drivers who have suspended licenses but decide to drive anyway because they have no other means of transportation, Tinkston said.  

Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt of Williamson County, in Central Texas, said she also deals with many frustrated Texans who are affected by the program.

“One mom had to let her insurance lapse to avoid eviction, but she ended up with this surcharge,” Staudt said. “And one woman couldn’t get her kids to school because she didn’t have her driver’s license.”

Staudt said she believes the program is unconstitutional because it penalizes drivers twice for the same violation.

“If you get a DWI, you go to jail, pay the fine. If you can’t afford to pay, you can do community service hours. The surcharge is an additional punishment,” Staudt said. 

Along with Henson and TCJC, Staudt said she plans to attend the hearing next week to speak against the program. Because they've been told that it's unlikely that lawmakers will repeal the program altogether, Henson said they're prepared to offer additional reform suggestions, such as offering a second amnesty period with more advertisements. 

But, ultimately, Yáñez-Correa said, Texas lawmakers need to find a different way to raise money for trauma care.

“The real solution for Texans is to come up with a reliable revenue for trauma hospitals,” Yáñez-Correa said. “They need money to pay for care, but not at the back of Texans who are barely making it.”

Texas Hospital Association spokeswoman Carrie Kroll said the organization stands by the program, because it pays for more emergency trauma care in Texas. Regional trauma care facilitates the transportation of severely injured patients in rural areas to appropriate hospitals.

In 2012, Texas trauma hospitals received $55 million from the program — about 23.5 percent of what it cost the hospitals to provide uncompensated care. 

“We understand the difficulty people have with the program, but we believe the trauma care system is very important,” Kroll said. 

*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story placed the number of drivers that took advantage of the 2011 amnesty program at 713,444. That was the number of eligible drivers.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/04/10/driver-responsibility-program-still-problematic/.