Controversial driver’s license program is on its last breath at the Texas capitol

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The controversial program charging additional fees, suspending drivers licenses, and in some cases enforcing jail time on Texans with outstanding traffic fines could be nearing its end. House Bill 2048 would end the Driver’s Responsibility Program and has only a few more steps before becoming law. 

Nearly 10 percent of Texas drivers – 1.4 million people – have a suspended license because of outstanding fees. Texas suspends drivers licenses more than any other state.

Criminal justice reform advocates say the program reinforces the cycle of debt. On top of the price of a traffic ticket, the program adds additional fines that could reach $2,000 for driving under the influence. After 105 days without payment, the state suspends licenses. Driving without a license multiple times can land someone in jail. 

“It’s 1.5 million people and most of them do have many many surcharges,” said staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, Emily Gerrick, represents Texans stuck in the Driver’s Responsibility Program.

Gerrick says, unpaid fines can lead to a suspended license and that lands many clients in jail.

“We have so many clients who have gone to jail because ultimately the inability to pay surcharges,” said Gerrick.

HB 2048 has high profile supporters, including its author, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who is in charge of writing the House version of the two-year state budget. The bill passed 144-0 in the Texas House and passed a Senate Committee.

The largest pushback for years came because of money. Around $140 million of this program went to trauma rooms at Texas Hospitals. The Hospital groups would only support a change if that money was replaced, which is in Zerwas’s plan. 

“People didn’t like what the DRP program was. People didn’t like what it did to some of the lower socio-economic groups of people, stuff like that. But they liked the funding stream,” said Chairman John Zerwas.

Under his bill, a two dollar increase in auto insurance fees and increasing the original traffic fines will offset the repeal. One example would be an increased fine for DWI’s to $6,000 for a first-time offense but there is a measure that allows your local judge to limit that fine based on your income level. 

“That’s a big deal in this program is to get these people licensed back into the workforce so to speak,” said Rep. Zerwas.

The last major hurdles are passing the full Texas Senate and not being vetoed by Governor Greg Abbott. 

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