After sixteen years of debate, the Texas House, in a very rare unanimous vote, last night approved the end of the 'Driver Responsibility Program' which has been blamed for costing hundeds of thousands of low income Texans their driver's license, and traps them in an endless cycle of debt as they drive without a license to get to work to earn money to pay the program's fines and fees, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.
Speaker after speaker, both Democrat and Republican, walked to the podium to declare the DRP 'a failed program.'
Passed in the 'recession session' of 2003, the DPS tacks massive fees, of as much as $2,000, onto the fines for multiple moving traffic violations. And if a person hasn't paid the fee the person loses his or her driver's license. The result is, the person has to drive without a license to get to work or get a child to school, and then has to pay additional fines and fees for that offense. It is not unusual for individuals to owe $20,000 or more under the DRP.
Nearly 1.4 million people, fully one tenth of the licensed drivers in Texas, had suspended driver's licenses in 2018, according to one study, and 90% of those suspensions were due to inability to pay the fees charged under the DRP. That made the program the number one reason why people in Texas drive without a license.
The problem with repealing the program is a 'poison pill' that supporters often insert into controversial bills. The money raised by the DRP goes to fund trauma care at urban hosptials across the state, and before repealing the program, lawmakers have had to come up with new ways to raise that revenue.
State Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) who is the sponsor of the bill to repeal the DRP, says he has come up with the answer.
"The lost revenue would be picked up by increasing state traffic fines, and then allocating some of that revenue to the fund, it would increase some of the DWI and DUI fines for various offenses, and it would also increase some transportation related fees," Zerwas told the House.
One of those 'transportation related fees' would be a two dollar annual fee on car insurance policies.
And, Zerwas says his bill would also help low income people who are struggling with suspended driver's licenses for not paying DRP fees.
"With this repeal would come re-instatement of drivers licenses that are not being allowed because of fines that have not been paid," he said.
But opponents say Zerwas' solution comes with a new problem. His bill would impse fees of up to $6,000 for people convicted of drunk driving, which opponents charge would simply create a new class of low income people who will have suspended licenses due to their inability to pay this fee.