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Texas driver offense fee program gets bipartisan blistering

A state program that levies extra fees for driving offenses has unintentionally mired hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans in a cycle of ever-increasing debt, a bipartisan group of state senators said Wednesday.

The sharpening frustration with the Driver Responsibility Program, expressed during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing at the Capitol, indicated a growing momentum toward efforts to reform the 13-year-old program — if not scrap it altogether — when the Legislature convenes in 2017.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, called the program immoral because a failure to pay the fees — which are levied in addition to court costs, fines and penalties — results in an automatic suspension of a driver’s license, placing those who can least afford to pay at risk of losing jobs.

About 1.3 million drivers have lost their licenses under the program, he said.

“To me, it just looks like what we’ve got here is a debtor’s prison,” said state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, who noted that the state has been able to collect only $1.5 billion of the $3.9 billion in fees assessed since 2003.

“You’ve got $2.4 billion owed by the poorest people in our state. That just seems like bad government,” Huffines said. “We’re making a permanent underclass here.”

The fees are assessed over three years for offenses that include driving while intoxicated ($1,000 a year), driving without insurance or a valid license ($250 a year) and driving with an expired license ($100 annually). Drivers who accumulate at least six points for moving violations also pay $100 annually, with an additional $25 for each additional point.

More than 1.84 million Texans are currently paying the fees, with about 681,000 added in 2015, according to the Department of Public Safety.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said many low-income Texans cannot pay the surcharge and cannot stop driving after losing their licenses, making them susceptible to additional fees for driving without a license.

“It just makes poor people poorer,” Garcia said. “And then you add the challenges of not having a car, you add the challenge of not having a driver’s license, it impacts so many other things they have to do, whether it’s banking or work.”

The committee chairman, state Sen. Robert Nichols, also joined the criticism.

“This program has a lot of problems. It’s had problems since day one,” said Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Even so, Nichols said, any changes to the Driver Responsibility Program will have to acknowledge that roughly half of the money it raised helps pay for uncompensated hospital care for trauma victims — money that has helped add almost 80 trauma centers across Texas. The other half of the money goes toward the state budget.

Representatives of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition of conservative, liberal and pro-business groups recommended canceling the fee program and offered legislators several strategies for protecting the politically popular trauma care money, such as redistributing fees assessed for court costs.

Efforts to reform the fee program gained momentum toward the end of the 2015 legislative session when tea party Republicans began supporting a bill by Ellis to kill the program. Although the bill fell short, the bipartisan support set the stage for a more concerted effort in the 2017 session.

But Nichols, saying reforms shouldn’t wait until 2017, directed DPS officials to draw up a list of recommended changes and other initiatives — such as a repeat of a 2011 amnesty offer for drivers who couldn’t pay the fees — to present when the committee next meets March 29.

“We’re not trying to reward people with bad behavior, particularly DWIs and stuff, but some of these other things can be taken care of,” Nichols said.

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