09 February 2010

Turning Texans Into Criminals To Raise Money

Dallas Morning News: Texas' high driving surcharges mostly uncollected

Texas motorists charged with certain driving violations owe the state more than $1 billion in surcharges, and many of the 1.2 million people on the unpaid list are driving without valid licenses and at risk of arrest.

Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the surcharge legislation into law, remains a backer of the program despite its troubles. In signing the measure in 2003, he cited projections indicating it would raise $1 billion for trauma care centers by 2008.

But the program never worked as planned. More than 60 percent of the surcharges – $1.05 billion – has not been paid. Of the 1.9 million Texas drivers who have been told to pay, about 1.2 million have not, nearly two-thirds of those in the Driver Responsibility Program. If drivers don't pay, their licenses are automatically suspended 30 days after their initial conviction.

The state has collected more than $672 million, but none of it has gone to highways. And just a fraction has gone to trauma centers, said Shapleigh, who noted that the original push for the program came during the state's budget crunch in 2003, when lawmakers were scrambling for new revenue sources. The money is sitting in the state Treasury.

Critics of the program said many of those affected by the surcharges are first-time offenders, students, single parents and low-income residents faced with the choice of either complying with the law or paying for necessities such as food, rent, car repairs and medical bills.

The financial penalties are so high that they are counterproductive and provide an incentive for people not to pay, the critics contend. And the surcharges come as a surprise; there's been little effort by the state to inform the public that the program exists. Police typically don't mention them upon issuing a ticket, and drivers are notified, often months later, in a letter from the state.

"When they created the program, it was an easy sell to say we could get more money from bad behavior [of drivers] by hitting people with super-crazy fines," Shapleigh said. But that rationale didn't consider that many lower-income drivers had a hard time paying their regular fines, let alone surcharges that doubled or triple those fines, he added.

A few other states have similar programs and have experienced similar problems collecting the fines and surcharges. Virginia recently abandoned its program because of the large number of drivers not paying.

Pointing to the lack of compliance by about two-thirds of the drivers who owe surcharges, Moody said it is hard to see why a program that criminalizes so many Texans would be allowed to continue.

"Nobody wants to admit they made a huge mistake with this," she said.

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