In 2003 the Texas Legislature, facing a projected budget shortfall of almost $10 billion, came up with a lot of schemes to make cuts and to raise revenue, including writing an ill-conceived, overly punitive and unworkable law to assess surcharges for certain traffic violations.
With the pretense of improving traffic safety and helping fund trauma centers, the Texas Driver Responsibility Program added annual surcharges for three years for convictions of driving while intoxicated, driving without a valid license and not having insurance. Based on a point system, surcharges (in addition to the regular fines) also can be added for other traffic violations.
Although many judges and criminal justice experts think the law is unjust and preys particularly on the working poor, it seems there’s little chance it will be abolished, according to Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.
The Dallas Morning News reported that the program raises about $170 million a year, despite the fact that 58 percent of its fines aren’t paid. And Pickett bluntly said, “We’re not going to give up the money.”
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The surcharges range from $250 to $2,000 a year, and if they are not paid, the drivers will have their licenses suspended. There is more than $2 billion in uncollected revenue, and close to 1 million people have had their licenses suspended, the paper said.
Many people don’t know about the law and don’t realize they owe additional money after having already paid a fine. As a result, they lose their license, but because they have to work they continue to drive, risking being caught and receiving another court case.
Pickett has said he’s working on a bill to change the law, perhaps reducing the amount of the payments and cutting the surcharges from three years to one, a move he thinks will help with compliance.
Comptroller Susan Combs has predicted the 2014-15 state budget will end with a positive balance of nearly $2.6 billion, and the rainy-day fund will have a balance of $8 billion by the end of 2015. So, the money raised through the Driver Responsibility Program is not that crucial to the state budget.
This is a law that doesn’t need fixing. It needs to be repealed.