August 28, 2019 800 PM
MARFA — On September 1, the Texas Department of Public Safety will officially end its controversial Driver Responsibility Program.
Launched in 2003 under Governor Rick Perry and touted as a tool to fund trauma centers and improve safety on Texas roads, the program imposed annual surcharges of up to $2,000 on some traffic violations — often targeting Texans who could least afford to pay for them.
Those fees had to be paid through a private, for-profit company, Municipal Services Bureau, which took a cut of the fees. The company did not respond to a request for comment on the end of the program.
Few issues in Texas have bridged the left-right divide quite like the Driver Responsibility Program, which critics say combined harassment of poor people with big government run amok. More than 1.4 million Texans lost their licenses as a result of the program, the DPS stated in a news release.
In September, though, the program will be gone, as will any outstanding fines levied through it. And that’s wonderful news, local officials told The Big Bend Sentinel.
“It’s a good thing,” Steve Marquez, Marfa police chief, said in an interview. “I could see where it was becoming really hard for people to pay for those surcharges.”
He estimated around 30 locals had been trapped in fees imposed by the program — some of whom could barely believe the news of the program’s end. “They wanted to make sure it was true and not a big hoax,” Marquez said.
David Beebe, a Presidio County Justice of the Peace, was also “very pleased” about repeal of the program, which he described as a “regressive tax on poor people” and akin to a “debtor’s prison.”
Beebe had his own experience with the program around the time of its launch, in 2003. He got pulled over in Austin with an expired inspection sticker. He paid his fine, he said, but the bills kept coming.
“You paid your tickets, you think you’re clear,” he said, describing his experience. “Actually, you’ve just fallen down a well.”
Over the past three legislative sessions, Beebe says, he’s contacted lawmakers at the Capitol and in their home-district offices in an effort to see the law repealed.
“If you’re going to continue the ‘Texas miracle’ — the economic miracle that makes Texas the tenth largest in the world — do you suspend everybody’s licenses so they can’t go to work?” he said. “None of it makes any sense.”
This year, outraged Texans like Beebe were finally successful in killing the program. A bill to overturn it passed the House in May with a final vote of 141-o. Two lawmakers — Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) and Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth) — didn’t vote. Seven more were absent.
Instead of surcharges, Texas will now fund its trauma centers with a $2 increase on auto insurance, an up to $50 increase on state traffic tickets and a whopping $2,000-or-more increase on first offense DWIs.
Texans who saw their licenses suspended could still have to pay around $100 to reinstate them. DPS is reportedly still figuring out details of the program but stated in its news release that “no additional surcharges or suspensions related to DRP will be assessed” after the program ends.
For Presidio County residents who were fined under the program and are navigating the withdrawal, Beebe offered help.
“Tell people: Once the month of September has passed, and we see how this is really gonna work, you can come to my office and we’ll talk about my individual situation,” he said.