Texas' loathed Driver Responsibility Program is hanging on by a thread. Wednesday afternoon, the Texas Senate voted 31-0 to kill the long-standing program, leaving it one Gov. Greg Abbott signature from death.
The program imposes surcharges on those drivers who do things like driving without a licence or driving under the influence. The surcharges are imposed on top of standard fines and range from $250 per year for three years for driving with an invalid license to $2,000 per year for three years for a DWI in which the driver is caught with a blood alcohol level of 0.16 — twice the legal limit — or higher. Drivers who accumulate too many points on their licenses for moving violations or moving violations resulting in a crash are also subject to surcharges.
While the surcharges can be easily dealt with by those who can afford to pay them, they are like quicksand for those living paycheck to paycheck.
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“This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Texas’ most impoverished residents, who are often unaware additional charges are owed under the DRP,” Phil Telfeyan, the lead attorney in a lawsuit seeking to end the program and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, said in December. “Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.”
According to numbers obtained by the Texas Tribune last summer, 1.4 million Texans were ineligible to obtain driver's licenses because of the program as of January 2018. If Abbott signs the bill, it will also wipe out any of Texas drivers' remaining surcharges.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle have pushed to end the program for years but have struggled to figure out how to fill the funding gap ending it would create — the Driver Responsibility Program funds, in part, emergency services in the state. The 2019 version of the bill would replace the lost revenue by increasing some traffic fines by $20, tacking on a $2 fee to car insurance premiums and reducing the amount of traffic fine revenue retained by municipalities from 5% to 4%. Fines for drivers with multiple DWIs would also increase.
If Abbott signs the law, it will go into effect Sept. 1. Anyone whose driving privileges are currently suspended because of the Driver Responsibility Program would immediately be allowed to apply for a license.