By Chuck Lindell
Posted Mar 13, 2019 at 3:02 PM
Updated Mar 13, 2019 at 6:50 PM
In what has become a rite of spring in the Texas Capitol, work began Wednesday on legislation to dismantle the Driver Responsibility Program, one of the most despised yet persistent policies to bedevil lawmakers in recent sessions.
By adding three years of extra fees for certain driving offenses, then taking away the driver’s license of anyone who doesn’t pay, the program has placed a significant number of low-income Texans into a cycle of debt that has solidified opposition from liberal Democrats, tea party Republicans and many lawmakers in between.
But the fees have also funneled significant sums toward trauma hospitals — about $55 million annually in recent years — supporting a crucial safety net across Texas.
Ending the program without sacrificing the trauma hospital money has been the sticking point that doomed efforts in previous legislative sessions.
Breaking the ice this session was House Bill 1145 by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth. It’s one of almost a dozen filed bills that would repeal the Driver Responsibility Program and the first to get a committee hearing Wednesday.
Krause told the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee that his measure was almost identical to a bill that passed the House 133-4 in 2017, though too late in the session to get Senate agreement.
The idea, Krause said, is to continue assessing a one-time extra fee for those convicted of driving while intoxicated or ticketed for driving without insurance, plus add $30 to state traffic fines, to continue funding trauma centers.
DWI fees would range from $3,000 to $6,000, while driving without insurance would cost an extra $750 — unchanged from current surcharges assessed over three years.
John Hawkins with the Texas Hospital Association spoke in favor of the bill, saying money from the program helps offset about $320 million a year in unreimbursed trauma care in state hospitals.
“The current funding has worked well,” Hawkins said. “And the need will still be there with population growth.”
But Emily Gerrick with the Texas Fair Defense Project said Krause’s bill would still leave people susceptible to having their driver’s license suspended under a separate program for unpaid fines and traffic tickets.
“Unfortunately, this bill would cause some other problems and result in the same people losing their licenses under a different program,” Gerrick said.
Continuing to assess the same fees — particularly a $750 surcharge for failure to have insurance, which disproportionately affects low-income Texans — won’t solve the problem, she said.
Krause committed to working with Gerrick to address the driver’s license issue.
“It was not my intention to be able to lose your license if you couldn’t pay your fine. That’s so counter-intuitive because, if you can’t drive to where you need to go, you can’t continue to have a job in order to pay the fines or surcharge,” Krause said. “That is one of the flaws of the DRP.”
Since the program started 16 years ago, more than 1.3 million drivers have had their licenses revoked for nonpayment.
Currently, the program assess fees over three years for offenses that include driving while intoxicated ($1,000 a year), a subsequent DWI ($1,500 annually) and DWI with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.16 percent or higher ($2,000 a year).
In addition, driving without insurance or a valid license adds a $250 annual surcharge, while driving with an expired license adds $100 annually. Drivers who accumulate at least six points for moving violations also pay $100 annually, with an another $25 for each additional point.
There is still plenty of time for action on other bills to repeal the program, though several do not continue funding trauma hospitals, a situation that doomed similar bills in prior sessions. Some bills also seek to reduce surcharges or ensure that information on waiving fees is provided to low-income people.