The P.E.A. Party Strikes Back Against the Driver Responsibility Program

Screw the tea party. I’m going to start a P.E.A. (Penalized Enough Already) Party. Because in Texas we don’t have a tax problem—though the system is deeply inequitable—so much as a fine, fee, penalty and surcharge problem. Instead of tricorn hats, P.E.A. Partyers will don green eyeshades and scour the state’s books for the insidious ways in which lawmakers fund government through hidden fees, usually imposed on those who can least afford them.

There is no greater enemy of the Texas P.E.A. Party than the Driver Responsibility Program. Never heard of it? Few have, but millions of Texans have been hurt by this disastrous and cruelly petty program. Passed with almost no debate by the Legislature in the bad-budget year of 2003, the program was intended to make bad drivers pay for trauma care by levying steep civil surcharges on top of criminal penalties for DWIs, multiple traffic violations and (most problematic) driving with an invalid license or no insurance. The Driver Responsibility Program was supposed to improve public safety. Instead, it has saddled countless drivers with onerous fines, introduced a new form of double jeopardy to the legal system, stripped more than a million drivers of their drivers’ licenses and—in a classic example of perverse incentives—decreased DWI convictions.

Here’s how it works: For most traffic violations (e.g., running a red light) drivers accrue “points,” and if you rack up six points in any three-year period, you’re levied a fine of at least $100 each year for three years. If you get convicted for DWI, no insurance, driving without a license or driving with an invalid license, you’ll receive an automatic surcharge on your fine of $100 to $2,000 each year for three years, depending on the offense. Or even more if you’ve already accumulated six points. That’s on top of court fees, criminal penalties and the administrative charges levied by Municipal Services Bureau, a for-profit company that runs the surcharge program for the Department of Public Safety. Each surcharge is treated as a different “account” by Municipal Services Bureau, and many people report never having received notice of their surcharges. Missing a single payment can lead to suspension of your driver’s license. You may not even know your license has been rendered invalid until you get pulled over and slapped with a ticket (cost: $500, plus court costs, plus $750 in surcharges, plus an automatic one- or two-year suspension of your license). A second offense means you’re probably going to jail.

The failure of the Driver Responsibility Program can be measured in many ways, but here’s just one: Of the $3.4 billion in surcharges that have been assessed over the last decade, only $1.4 billion has been collected—an abysmal collection rate of 40 percent. Another telling stat: Nearly 1.3 million Texas drivers now have invalid driver’s licenses due to the program’s spiraling penalties, making a simple trip to the store, or to work, either a hassle or a risk.

Many folks just can’t pay. The surcharges are tantamount to a tax on poverty.

“We shouldn’t be taking driver’s licenses from somebody because they don’t have money,” Edna Staudt, a conservative Republican justice of the peace in notoriously tough-on-crime Williamson County, told a legislative committee in early August. “They’re not crooks; they’re not criminals; they’re not thieves; they’re not robbers or rapists; they’re just people that didn’t have money. ”

As lawmakers have heard in hearing after hearing, the program is deeply unpopular, and voices calling for its abolition are unusually diverse. Judges, prosecutors and jailers hate it. Hospitals, whose trauma centers are directly funded by the program, are happy to find other sources of revenue. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving wouldn’t protest its repeal.

And yet the Legislature shows almost no appetite for serious reform. At a hearing in August, Rep. Joe Pickett, the El Paso Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “There is no intention on my part to do away with” the program. Instead, he circulated draft legislation that would modestly reduce the fees while trying to bolster “compliance.” Criminal-justice blogger Scott Henson rightly called Pickett’s weak bill “lipstick on a pig.” Why are lawmakers refusing to budge? Simple: They won’t find another way to fund trauma care. Pickett was blunt: “We’re the government. We’re living off of these monies … We’re not going to give up the money.”

This isn’t fiscal conservatism. And it sure as hell isn’t good governance. Time for a P.E.A. Party revolt.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 11:08 am CST