Despite repeal of Drivers Responsibility Program, Texas motorists still lose driver's licenses for unpaid fees

By John Suayan

Criminal justice reform advocates are pushing to end the practice of suspending or revoking driver’s licenses because of unpaid court debt eliminated.

Texas is among 44 states and the District of Columbia that implement the practice despite an attempt at reform earlier this year. The Free to Drive campaign reported that there are more than 11 million debt-related suspensions nationwide.

The Texas Legislature ended the Drivers Responsibility Program, which permitted the state’s Department of Public Safety to assess surcharges to traffic tickets and suspend licenses if motorists did not pay or make payment arrangements within a certain time frame before the repeal went into effect two months ago.

Despite the elimination of the program, Texans are still prevented from getting behind the wheel because of unpaid court debt and failure to appear. Attempts to fix the locally administered Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay Program, more commonly known as the OmniBase program, were unsuccessful.

An official with the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation attributed the failure to strong opposition from OmniBase Services of Texas. The program’s roots go back nearly 25 years, when the legislature enacted it.

According to the group and DPS, currently 732 cities and 243 counties belong to the program. OmniBase instructs DPS to bar a license from renewal until it is reported that the court-related debt has been paid.

Since the program started, nearly 70 percent of cases reported were resolved.

OmniBase opponents assert that the less fortunate are trapped in a cycle of debt because of holds on licenses. The inability to drive jeopardizes employment and other areas, they say.