This commentary originally appeared in TribTalk on March 2, 2016.
In late January, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing regarding the future of theDriver Responsibility Program (DRP). For those unaware of the program, consider yourself lucky. Millions of other Texans know far too well the consequences it has brought the Lone Star State. However, if the hearing was any indication, the DRP could be seeing its last days.
The DRP was created in 2003 to help increase revenue for a $9.9 billion budget shortfall during that biennium. The program essentially penalizes drivers with surcharges for committing certain driving-related offenses.
For example, two points are given to a driver for a moving violation, three points are given for a moving violation that resulted in an accident. The points stay on your license for three years. If you hit six points, you must pay $100 for every year they are on your record and an additional $25 for each additional point.
Higher-level traffic convictions carry steep penalties that must be paid for three years. A first-time DWI will cost an individual $3,000 over three years. Failure to pay these fines results in the suspension of the person’s license.
Fines, attorney’s fees, car repairs, elevated insurance rates and court costs for even a minor traffic violation can add up to thousands in the blink of an eye. During the hearing, attorney Elizabeth Henneke for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition explained how a client’s one DWI amounted to almost $25,000 in fines, fees and DRP surcharges.
Paying these surcharges on top of the litany of other costs can become an impossible task. According to the Senate Research Center, 1.2 million Texans have lost their licenses due to the program, leaving people with the choice of driving on a suspended license or losing their means to take them to their job in order to support themselves and their family.
Without their means to income, the spiral of impoverishment and debt due to fines and fees spins around those most vulnerable in our society faster than they can escape. Several committee hearings in the past have featured individuals left homeless from this cycle.
It’s an almost unanimous consensus that the DRP should either be revoked or greatly reformed to allow for individuals to maintain their licenses, especially if they are faced with financial hardships. During the hearing, members of the Committee from both sides of the political aisle repeatedly voiced their concerns for the DRP, comparing the program to a “debtor’s prison.”
With overwhelming support for discontinuance of the status quo, only one major hurdle stands in its way. A portion of the revenue from the DRP goes to fund trauma hospitals' uncompensated care costs. In fiscal year 2015, that was a little over $54 million, or just 17 percent of total trauma care costs throughout the state.
DRP surcharges aren't the only way the fund is refilled. $30 million went into general revenue funds dedicated for trauma facilities and care from three court costs and fines that are gathered at the state and local level. $74.8 million came from DRP surcharges, with only about half of this money actually going to trauma hospitals. The rest went to the general revenue fund to assist in balancing the budget.
By statute, only a fraction of the money from those three court fines and costs actually goes to fund the trauma hospitals. If a larger portion were dedicated to the trauma hospitals, the DRP could be phased out with little to no revenue loss to the hospitals.
Even with a minor loss in funding to trauma centers, this should not deter lawmakers from doing away with a program that targets the most susceptible populations of Texans and is rarely practiced in other jurisdictions.
Only four other states currently have similar programs, with Virginia recently voting for its removal and Michigan phasing theirs out soon. We now stand alone with New Jersey and New York, making every self-respecting Texan shudder.
Driving safety, a named benefit to the program in its inception, has not improved either. Drivers who received DWIs are hit the hardest by the surcharges, but since 2003, DUI-related driving crashes resulting in a fatality actually have increased by 4.28 percent.
Public safety on the roadways is certainly something lawmakers should strive to facilitate. If the Legislature feels it necessary to provide public funding to subsidize trauma care, then it should be done with a predictable appropriation, not via an insurmountable tax that has left over a million Texans without a license. With minor tweaks to current judicial court fines and costs, the DRP can be a thing of the past, while not disturbing trauma care funding streams.