"Our founders never intended for debtor's prisons to substitute for a tax system."
Senator targets "debtor prison" for bad drivers
The Houston Chronicle
Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D- El Paso, urged the Department of Public Safety Commission Friday to make immediate changes to the Driver Responsibility Program, which critics fault for disproportionately socking students and low-income Texans with expensive fees.
Warrants get issued to those who can't pay and results in more uninsured drivers on Texas' roads, he says.
Shapleigh wants the commission to create a public awareness campaign and an indigent program that would exempt people from paying surcharges, in addition to a "good driving behavior" program.
In El Paso, 11 percent of drivers had outstanding warrants attributable to the Driver Responsibility Program, Shaplaigh says. A driver faces an arrest when they fail to pay excessive fines and then do not show up for municipal court hearings. Those drivers' responsibility cases are clogging municipal courts.
Under the Driver Responsibility Program:
Points are accumulated for moving violation convictions. After six points, drivers must pay a $100 surcharge each year for three years. Each additional point on a driver's record costs an extra $25 a year.
Driving while intoxicated carries an automatic $1,000 annual surcharge for a first offense. Each subsequent conviction carries an additional $1,500 annual surcharge;
Driving without a license carries a $150 penalty, plus a $100 annual surcharge, making the total violation $450. Driving with an invalid license would cost a driver $150, plus a $250 annual surcharge, making the total violation $900;
Texans caught driving without proof of insurance must to pay a $250 fee, plus an automatic annual surcharge of $250 for three years from the date of their conviction, making the total cost of the violation $1,000. And a driver who commits one of the latter two violations again within that three years get hit with an additional annual surcharge.
Many people facing surcharges simply do not pay. By October 2008, of the 1,121,348 drivers required to pay surcharges, 783,536 did not pay, a roughly 30 percent rate of compliance. That means, of the more than $900 million in surcharges billed, less than $300 million have actually been collected.
Texans affected by these automatic surcharges are first-time offenders, students, single parents or low-income parents. The driver program confronts, these vulnerable Texans with the choice of either complying with the law, or paying for their education, rent, food for their families or emergency expenses like car repair or medical bills, Shapleigh says.
A Legislative Budget Board report says the program has failed to fund trauma care centers and disproportionately hurts students and low-income or indigent Texans who cannot afford to pay the costly surcharges.
"Here's a terrible program that used punitive fines to plug holes in the budget. Some face $1,750 fines for a first time offense. Of the 1.6 million in the program, (nearly 1.1 million) can't pay. Our founders never intended for debtor's prisons to substitute for a tax system," Shapleigh says.
Earlier this year, Shapleigh succeeded in amending some of the provisions on to the DPS Sunset bill, which would exempt people living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level from paying surcharges.
© 2009 The Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com
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