No help for those spiraling under law

Copyright 2017 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a guest column on June 18, 2017
in the San Antonio Express-News)

     Our Texas legislators, particularly those in the senate, should be ashamed for allowing to languish in committee important bills concerning issues adversely affecting over a million of the state’s citizens.

     Having begun with an indictment, let me add a caveat. Most state lawmakers throughout the U. S. work long, hard hours for little pay. Many laws—some good, some bad—are enacted because of this hard work, and the good ones often prove to be of great benefit to our nation’s citizens.

     Texas legislators are no different. I applaud them for the beneficial fruits of their hard work, when there’s such fruit to bear.

     So why, then, am I taking them to task?

     I focus on two Senate bills, SB 90, introduced by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Rockwell, and SB 266, introduced by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. Both bills stalled in the Senate’s Transportation Committee, awaiting action that, as the session drew to an end, never took place.

     Both bills dealt with what’s known as the Driver Responsibility Program pursuant to the Transportation Code, under which the Department of Public Safety (DPS) enforces the collection of surcharges assessed against certain criminal defendants, specifically, those convicted of drunken driving, driving without insurance, and driving without a license.

     SB 90 would have abolished the program and SB 266 would have retained it but cut the surcharges in half. These administrative fees, by the way, some of which amount to $2,000 a year for three years for defendants, are in addition to the fines, court costs, and probation fees that defendants are ordered to pay by the courts.

     According to Watson, the program generated about $120 million in revenue last year. That’s a lot of money but less than half of the revenues anticipated. DPS kept 1 percent of that amount to run the program, and almost half of the remaining 99 percent went to trauma centers in Texas and the other half to the general state budget.

     In an article published in the Austin American-Statesman on April 6, Watson, referring to the program as “hated” and “pretty much universally despised,” claimed that “people get into a spiral.

     “They lose their licenses (when defendants get behind in paying the surcharges) and then can’t pay the surcharges” because they’ve lost their job due to not being able to drive, he said.

     According to the bill analysis for SB 90, over “1.2 million people have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay their assessments. This often causes people who want to work to be unable to do so, and people who currently have jobs to not be able to keep them.”

     Under enforcement of the program, individuals get enmeshed in a vicious cycle of debt and poverty from which they can’t escape.

     To add to the problem, according to the bill analysis, driving safety, an intended benefit of the program, hasn’t improved. Drivers with DWI convictions are hit the hardest by the surcharges, yet since 2003, the year surcharges began, DWI-related crashes resulting in a fatality have increased by 4.25 percent.

     To be sure, half of the surcharges collected so far have been used for a worthy cause—the funding of trauma centers. But does that justify the misery and poverty caused to so many of our residents? Although they’ve run afoul of the law, they are plunged deeper into debt, and then their families suffer due to the provider’s loss of his or her job.

     The public, too, must suffer the consequences, for it is called on to pick up the additional tab for food stamps and other subsidy programs, due to a family’s loss of income.

     Granted, in starting the program, our Legislature found a source to fund trauma centers. But is that a good reason to maintain a program that in the eyes of many has proven ineffective and a burden to those who can ill afford it? Instead, let the centers’ funding be spread among all of us, not just among the unfortunates who are forced deeper into despair.

     The surcharge program has failed us. It’s time to do away with it.

     I say again, shame on you, our legislative representatives, for not admitting that a law you enacted has proven to be a terrible mistake. By doing nothing, you compound the mistake and forsake your responsibility to your constituents.