Time past due for repeal of bad state law

Posted Saturday, Mar. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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sanders State legislators arriving in Austin in 2003 knew they had a tough road ahead after the comptroller forecast a $9.9 billion budget shortfall for the 2004-05 biennium.

The lawmakers concocted all kinds of proposals and maneuvers to cut the budget and find additional revenue.

One money-raising scheme they came up with -- adding surcharges for some traffic violations -- has proved to be overly punitive while falling far short of its funding expectations. It also has contributed to the very problems the legislation was designed to alleviate.

The Texas Driver Responsibility Program, which went into effect Sept. 1, 2003, calls for annual surcharges (on top of the regular fines) for convictions of driving while intoxicated, driving without a valid license and for not having insurance. Plus surcharges can be added, based on a point system, for other traffic violations within a three-year period.

For a DWI, the surcharge for the first conviction is $1,000 per year for three years, $2,000 if the blood alcohol level is twice the legal limit of 0.08. Conviction for an invalid license or lack of insurance carries additional fees of $250 a year.

Failure to pay the charges results in an automatic suspension of all driving privileges.

Legislators thought that in addition to raising money for trauma centers and highway projects in the state, the program would reduce the number of DWIs and make drivers more responsible in carrying liability insurance.

Within the first year of the program I declared it a failure and called for it to be repealed because it was hurting people and was totally ineffective.

At the time, I was hearing from people who had been surprised by notices saying they owed the state more money, and many of them simply didn't have the resources to pay the surcharges. The state had done a poor job of educating the public and, frankly, lawmakers had not considered some of the unintended consequences.

Unlike with regular fines, where indigent people are allowed to work them off by doing community service or sit them out in jail, there is no alternative to the surcharge except to lose your license.

The Department of Public Safety reported in 2004 that 200,000 Texas drivers were facing license revocations for failure to pay surcharges that then amounted to a total of $67 million.

The problem has grown worse.

Today more than 1.3 million people have not paid the surcharges (totaling $1.7 billion) and have lost driving privileges. But that doesn't mean they have stopped driving.

What does a poor person do after losing his or her license but still must get to work?

A study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition shows the 10-year-old law has produced more unlicensed drivers. And because a license is needed to buy insurance, that means more uninsured drivers are on the road, adding to the cost of insurance for qualified drivers.

The coalition reports that there are fewer DWI convictions because rather than pay the extra charges, more individuals are setting their cases for trial instead of pleading guilty, resulting in a backlog in the courts. Also, alcohol-related crashes have increased significantly since the law was passed, from 26 percent of accidents in 2003 to 34 percent now.

Several bills to repeal the law were introduced last session, but they got nowhere. Another bill (HB 104) has been filed this session with the support of a bipartisan group of legislators, including Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, and the sponsor of the original act, Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. Other sponsors are Reps. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, and Alma Allen, D-Houston.

Burnam calls the law "dysfunctional" and says it's time to get rid of it.

He's right. If you agree, let your representatives know.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and

Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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