WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE APPROVES BILLS ENDING CONTROVERSIAL TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT PROGRAMS
(AUSTIN) — With just ten days left in the 86th Legislative session, the Senate approved legislation this week that would end two traffic enforcement programs that are unpopular with both citizens and lawmakers. The first would repeal the Drivers' Responsibility Program (DRP), created in 2003 as a way to help fund trauma care in Texas. This law places "points" on a driver's record for each violation, and assesses annual surcharges when a driver accrues more than six. "The Texas Legislature has contemplated replacing the DRP for more than 15 years, but we have been hesitant to change the program because it is tied to Fund 5111, which is dedicated to supporting Texas trauma care," said Houston Senator Joan Huffman. "This account assists in the treatment of approximately 130,000 individuals each year in medical facilities throughout Texas." In all the DRP brings in about $300 million in revenue every biennium from surcharges assessed to drivers. Wednesday, Huffman won passage of a plan to repeal the DRP while creating new revenue sources to fund trauma care.
Annual surcharges currently assessed under the DRP include a $100 annual surcharge for drivers with six points on their record, increasing by $25 for every point after that. It has stiffer penalties, $250, for those who are cited for driving without a license or auto insurance, and escalating charges, starting at $1,000, for DWI convictions. Under Huffman's HB 2048, DWI convictions would bring a fine that starts at 3,000 for the first offense and goes up as high as $6,000 in cases where a person is convicted of driving with a blood alcohol content of .16, twice the legal limit. It would raise the base state traffic fine to $50 and would increase the fee assessed on each auto insurance policy issued in Texas from $2 to $4. This new revenue would, according to the Legislative Budget Board, actually increase revenue flowing into the state trauma fund by $7 million every two years. Any outstanding surcharges under the DRP would be forgiven and any licenses suspended strictly for non-payment of DRP fees would be restored.
Finance Committee Chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson was one of several members who rose to thank Huffman for her work on finally repealing this program. "It's what we should've done all those years ago," said Nelson. "I thank you for fixing this horrible driver responsibility program and putting in place a trauma funding system that will work statewide for all Texans."
A handful of technical amendments were added by the Senate, so the bill must head back to the House for consideration. They can either concur with the changes or request the appointment of a conference committee to hammer out any issues.
Friday, the Senate voted to put an end to another unpopular traffic enforcement tool: red light cameras. Officially known as photographic traffic light enforcement systems, these cameras snap a picture of the license plate of any car that enters an intersection after a traffic signal has turned red and sends a citation to the person in whose name the car is registered. "Red light cameras violate the rights to due process guaranteed under Article I of the Texas constitution by creating a presumption that the registered owner of the car committed a violation when that may not be the case," said Edgewood Senator Bob Hall, who sponsored the measure, HB 1631 authored by Representative Johnathan Stickland of Bedford.
Hall said that numerous studies show that these cameras don't actually improve public safety and asserted that they are instead a tool used by municipalities strictly to raise revenue. Under his bill, existing contracts signed before May of this year could continue until they expire, unless they have a force majeure clause that allows either party to void the contract due to adverse legislative action. The bill would also apply to cameras used to enforce school bus stop arms. This bill passed without amendment, sending it to the governor's desk for his signature.
The Senate will reconvene Sunday, May 19 at 4 p.m.