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Legislature Looks to Ax Driver Responsibility Program -- And Just Might This Time Around

Maria Pagan
Advocates and lawmakers agree that the Texas program designed to offset medical costs has to go.

State Sen. Bob Hall says Texas' Driver Responsibility Program was well intentioned once. But it took the same path as most good intentions on its way to crippling the state's low-income drivers.

The basics of the state’s Driver Responsibility Program, or DRP, are straightforward enough. When a driver gets a ticket, for anything, Texas adds a surcharge to the fine and uses that money to pay for mainly rural trauma care that otherwise couldn’t be paid for.

The problem is, DRP nets Texas about $145 million a year – almost half the overall cost of uncompensated trauma care in the state – at the expense of low-income drivers. 

At least that’s what foes of DRP say. And there are plenty of foes – from a lively Facebook group, to online petitions, to a DC-based advocacy group called Equal Justice Under Law -- all seeking to repeal DRP. 

Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, says DRP has been devastating the lives of of Texans since it was enacted in 2003.

"There are currently 1.4 million Texans who can’t drive solely because of unpaid DRP surcharges," Telfeyan says. 

And to rub salt into the wounds, he says 60 percent of the money that would be collected under DRP isn't, because poorer drivers simply can't afford to shed those hefty surcharges.

Equal Justice and the Austin Community Law Center sued Texas over DRP in December over this fact -- that low-income drivers can end up owing giant balances for fines assessed from fines they can’t pay to begin with, and then lose their licenses, which greatly inhibits their ability to keep jobs, and so the cycle churns.

But this isn't just an issue for nonprofit advocates. State lawmakers here in Texas don’t like DRP either.

State Sen. Bob Hall (R-2) says DRP would be a joke if the effects of it weren’t so devastating.

"You got these people that owe $8,000,$9,000, $10,000 or more and they’re making $10 an hour, $12 an hour," he says. "They’re just saying ‘That’s an astronomical number, I’ll never be able to pay it. I’ll just have to live without it.’"

This session, he’s introduced a bill to add a small fee to vehicle registration to compensate for what he hopes will be a scrapped DRP program.

The Legislature is looking to scrap vehicle inspections in Texas and essentially shift the current $7 vehicle inspection fee to be an added fee on vehicle registrations. With 24 million registered vehicles in Texas, according to the State Department of Motor Vehicles, that would translate into about $145 million. 

Hall’s bill may be referred to either the Senate Finance Committee or the Senate Transportation Committee. There are about a half-dozen other bills in the Legislature this round seeking to either drastically amend or abolish DRP. But that’s a familiar road for Texas lawmakers.

In 2017 the Texas House almost unanimously voted to repeal DRP. But the bill died late in the Senate – mainly on the question of how to replace all that money that funds trauma care.

Hall says he’s more optimistic that this session will accomplish something to end what he says are punishing fines that do more harm than good – mainly because there are lots of ways to replace those funds for trauma care.

Scott Morgan has been an award-winning journalist since 2001. His work has appeared in several newspapers and magazines as well as online. He has also been an editor, freelancer, speaker, writing teacher, author, and podcaster.