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vehicle registration

More reasons not to put people in jail

We shouldn’t put people in jail for owing fines.

In January, state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, filed House Bill 1125, which would ban Texas judges from jailing people for an offense that is punishable only by a fine. State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, soon signed on as a joint author. On Thursday, White also filed House Bill 3729, which would require courts to ask whether a defendant can afford to pay a fine and offer alternatives to payment.

Bernal said representing a district with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds made him realize how a simple traffic ticket could dramatically affect someone’s life. HB 1125 would “level the playing field” and “give people some dignity,” he said.

Thousands of Texans are at risk of being arrested at any given moment for not paying fines related to traffic offenses or other city ordinance violations, according to a recently released report by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project. Those who can’t afford to pay often find themselves hit with additional fines or other restrictions such as being blocked from renewing their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

More than 200,000 Texans can’t renew their licenses and approximately 400,000 have holds on vehicle registrations due to unpaid fines, according to the report. In 2015, almost 3 million warrants were issued in cases where the punishment was originally just a fine.

“What happens is that the current system is counterproductive, and it drives people further into debt because they’re accumulating more tickets for driving illegally and on top of those tickets are all of the costs and fees that start snowballing as well,” said Mary Mergler, criminal justice project director with Texas Appleseed. “So it drives people further into debt … and impedes people’s abilities to make a living.”

Courts generally don’t offer alternatives to jailing or ask about a defendant’s ability to pay, the study found. In 2015, judges rarely used community service to resolve “fine-only” cases – just 1.3 percent of the time. In fewer than 1 percent of cases, they waived fines or reduced payments owed because the defendant couldn’t afford to pay, according to the study.

Many drivers feel a sense of helplessness related to paying off their mounting fines, said Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project.

“It’s very easy for people to accumulate thousands of dollars in ticket debt even if they’re not bad drivers, just because they have to get their kids to school, they have to go to the doctor,” she said. “There’s no choice but to drive, so they’re going to keep getting these tickets and then eventually, what ends up happening is they get their warrant, they go to jail.”

That kind of disruption puts families, jobs and housing at risk, studies and individual accounts have shown.

“They’re usually very distressed,” Gerrick said, describing clients behind bars. “I’ve had them not know where their kids were when I saw them.”

Mergler added that the situation undermines, rather than improves, public safety.

“People with outstanding warrants who are afraid of being arrested on those warrants are inclined to avoid contact with law enforcement, whether that’s to report a crime or even to ask for help when they themselves are a victim of crime,” she said.

I agree with this, and I agree that we should not jail people for having unpaid fines. I’m sure there are some exceptional circumstances under which jailing is the best option, but it should be the exception and not the rule. Otherwise, people should always be given alternative means of complying – payment plans, community service, some other means that people smarter than I am can come up with – and should not have additional violations and fines piled on top of their existing ones if they are in the process of paying them off. It’s not justice, and it’s not right. I support these bills and I hope to see them become laws.

(By the way, that same argument at the end of this story, about how this situation undermines public safety, is basically the same argument made by police chiefs and sheriffs against so-called “sanctuary cities”. Just wanted to point that out.)

Year 2 for “One Sticker”

Surely this year will go more smoothly.

Texas dropped its familiar green safety inspection sticker a year ago, creating confusion for millions of vehicle and trailer owners in the state. Though inspections didn’t change – but might soon, as some lawmakers want to scrap them – the stickers went away as the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles shifted to a database system to verify compliance with state rules.

Though this year’s crop of registrations is not expected to result in the confusion and computer problems that plagued the process last year, some people may forget the new rules.

“I think we could have some confusion and the reason I say that is we have taken a decades-old process and kind of changed it,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, whose office handles vehicle registration.

[…]

Last year, owners of the roughly 17 million registered personal vehicles and trailers in Texas were able to renew, provided their inspection was current and valid. In other words, someone who renewed in March, and whose registration expired in April, did not have to undergo an inspection.

Now inspections and registration are closely tied. Lawmakers changed the rules in 2013, effective last year, requiring drivers to pass inspection within 90 days of renewing the vehicle registration.

Inspection results are uploaded into a state database, though officials suggest keeping the paper copy of the inspection report that stations and mechanics are required to provide after a vehicle passes inspection.

Sullivan said it is possible vehicle owners could start showing up without inspections because many didn’t need to conduct one last year. It’s also possible some drivers erred in the past 12 months. Someone whose car was inspected when its sticker expired in November will run afoul of the 90-day requirement if they try to renew their registration in April.

See here and here for some background. Ideally, this year people will understand the need to do their inspections around the time of their registration renewals, and there won’t be any technical glitches. Perhaps some periodic reminders about what is needed would be helpful. What has your experience with the new system been so far?

Vehicle registration renewal error notice

The following is a public service announcement. From the inbox:

320,000 Texas Drivers Receive Error in Renewal Notice
Mike Sullivan wants to ensure Harris County drivers are aware of issue

Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan wants to ensure Harris County drivers are aware of the issue concerning their vehicle registration notice.

According to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, two million vehicle registration renewal notices were mailed to customers on March 2, 2015 for their April renewals. From those notices, around 320,000 were printed with an incorrect inspection fee of $0.00 when a fee should have been printed. This only affects a select number of the April renewals.

“We don’t know how many Harris County drivers have been affected by this error, but my office is currently investigating the issue with the support of TxDMV staff,” said Mike Sullivan.

Affected drivers will receive a correct vehicle registration renewal and a notice in the mail from the TxDMV stating:

IMPORTANT NOTICE

Dear Customer: Please use the enclosed registration renewal notice when renewing your vehicle registration. The notice we sent to you earlier this month was printed with an incorrect fee and should be discarded. You are receiving a corrected renewal notice that displays the fee amount that is actually owed. You may disregard this notice if you have already received your registration sticker. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. If you have questions, please contact 1-888-DMV-GOTX (1-888-368-4689).

“If you have received your April vehicle registration renewal notice and have concerns if it is correct, please contact the TxDMV at 1-888-DMV-GOTX (1-888-368-4689),” said Mr. Sullivan.

If you have any questions please contact the Office of Mike Sullivan at (713)274-8000 or by email at tax.office@hctx.net.

A brief Chron story on this is here. This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming, already in progress.

One sticker for all has begun

Hope it wasn’t too confusing for you if you had to deal with it this week.

On Monday – the first full day under the new system for registering cars, trucks, trailers and motorcycles in Texas – drivers trying to abide by the new law faced frustration as misunderstandings and a computer glitch led to overcharges for some motorists.

The confusion stemmed mostly from new rules about how certain fees are collected. Under the old two-sticker system, car owners in the Houston area paid a flat fee of $39.75 for an inspection sticker – $25.50 to the inspection station and a $14.25 clean air fee the inspection station collected and forwarded to the state.

Under the new system, which went into effect Sunday, motorists are required to pay the inspection station only its $25.50. The clean air fee now is added to the cost of registering the vehicle.

And therein lay the problem.

On Monday, many motorists who showed up at one of the 16 Harris County offices where owners can register vehicles reported they had been charged the $14.25 clean air fee twice. Similar problems were being reported in other counties.

“Things are not going well in a lot of places,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, whose office is in charge of vehicle registration.

Monday was the first day tax collectors and motorists had to deal with the changes, and state officials relied on a computer database to link inspection and registration information.

State officials offered a more sanguine assessment of how the switch went on its first day.

“Overall, the system is performing as expected,” said Adam Shaivitz, spokesman for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. “A majority of inspections were verified electronically at the time of vehicle registration.”

But not well enough, apparently, to avoid frustration here and elsewhere in the state where similar problems were being encountered.

One of our cars was inspected and registered as of January, so it was all under the old system. The other has been registered, but its inspection expires this month. My understanding of how this works is that we’ll get it inspected as before, and then next year both cars will be under the new system. I presume all the bugs will have been worked out by then. Educating the public is always the hard part of this kind of change. You may have seen some billboards around town advertising the switchover – see here for more about them – or you can visit OneSticker.net for more about how things work now. Anyone got a story to tell? Dallas Transportation has more.

Sticker reduction coming

From the inbox:

Harris County is gearing up for a new Texas Two Step. Beginning March 1, 2015, the state will no longer issue vehicle inspection stickers and will move to a “Two Steps, One Sticker” program. Under the new system, Texas vehicle owners will need to pass inspection prior to renewing their registration. The familiar blue-bordered Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV) registration sticker will serve as proof of both inspection and registration.

“We are prepared to make this transition as smooth as possible for our residents,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan. “During the first year of the program beginning March 1, 2015, all you will need to do is make sure you already have a valid passing vehicle inspection before you renew your registration in our office, online or by mail.”

When vehicle owners renew their registration, the system will verify whether the vehicle has a valid inspection. It’s recommended to bring the hard copy of the vehicle inspection report when renewing your registration. Without a passing inspection, the vehicle will not be eligible for registration renewal.

During the second year of the program, beginning March 1, 2016, vehicles’ inspection and registration expiration dates will align to the date that is on the registration sticker. Once the expiration dates are aligned in that second year, you will have a convenient 90-day window to pass inspection first and then renew your registration before the end of the month listed on your sticker.

“When the ‘Two Steps, One Sticker’ program is fully implemented, Harris County residents will appreciate having just one sticker in the corner of their windshield and only one expiration date to worry about,” said TxDMV Executive Director Whitney Brewster. “And because a passing vehicle inspection will be a requirement to renew your registration, more vehicle owners will comply with inspection requirements leading to safer and more environmentally sound cars on Texas roads.”

The implementation of “Two Steps, One Sticker” is a result of House Bill 2305 which passed during the 83rd Legislative Session in 2013. The program is joint effort by the TxDMV, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in collaboration with the 254 county tax assessor-collector’s offices which process vehicle registrations and vehicle inspection stations across the state.

For more information:
www.TwoStepsOneSticker.com

The Harris County Tax Office Automobile Division performs more than 4.5 million automobile transactions in Harris County each year. It also works closely with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to register motor vehicles, collect registration and title fees and distributes them to the proper entities. Learn more about the Automobile Services Division by visiting www.hctax.net.

See here and here for the background. I think this is a good idea, but I also expect there will be some confusion along the way. At the very least, having only one date to worry about instead of two, especially if you have more than one car at your household, will be nice.

Get ready to go inspection sticker-free

Things are gonna be different next year.

Texas drivers will have a little less clutter on their windshield next year when the familiar green inspection sticker goes away, but it comes at the price of requiring inspections in order to renew vehicle registrations.

As of March 2015, vehicles registered in Texas will no longer need separate vehicle inspection and registration stickers. Inspections and registrations will continue, but the single registration sticker will act as proof of both, Texas DMV director Whitney Brewster told a state senate committee on Monday. The deadline for passing state vehicle safety and emissions tests shifts to sometime in the 90 days before the vehicle’s registration expires.

“This is a big impact on customers,” Brewster told state senators, citing the need for an aggressive public awareness campaign.

[…]

The rules and costs for vehicle owners do not change, though when the payments occur will. Owners in the Houston area will pay the station $25.50 when the inspection is done. The remaining $14.25 associated with Texas clean air programs and inspection oversight is paid when the person renews the vehicle registration.

The owner will get a printout when they submit for the inspection, then that information is relayed into the state database. The owner can go online prior to their registration expiring and renew. Officials can check the insurance and inspection databases for the information and issue the registration renewal.

For in-person renewals, the owner can take the proper insurance and inspection certificates and present them to the county tax assessor.

The change means a break from annual inspections for some drivers, because of the timing for inspections and registrations expiring. If someone’s registration expires in May and their inspection tag expires in June, for example, they will not have to get their car tested until prior to renewing their registration in May 2016.

See here for the background. This is the result of a bill passed last year by the Lege, and the idea is to cut down on inspection fraud. It will be a big change for pretty much everyone, so that public awareness campaign does need to be aggressive and pervasive. For now, be aware that a change is coming, and be prepared to look for the new procedures next year when inspection and registration time roll around.

Credit cards at the Tax Assessor’s office

If you’ve paid your vehicle registration fees in person at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, you’ve had to bring cash or check to do so, because they don’t accept credit cards for that. Thankfully, that’s about to change.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

More than a decade after the office began accepting credit and debit cards for property tax payments, in person and online, the tax office is preparing to do the same for all things to do with motor vehicles, including registrations and renewals.

Within a month, all counters at the downtown tax office will accept plastic. All 17 locations should be plastic-friendly within three months, [Tax Assessor Mike] Sullivan said, describing the current situation as “horrible, horrible, horrible customer service.”

“It’s going to be a big roll-out when we are able to tell people we accept all forms of payment, bringing the office into the 21st century,” said Sullivan, who took office in January and promised that and other innovations during his campaign. “We’re several years behind where we should be.”

The move is part of a pilot program that will allow the county to input credit and debit card payments directly into the state system. Sullivan said it should reduce the office’s infamously long lines.

The tax assessor said he also plans to post an experienced employee at the front door of each of the five busiest locations to make sure people have all the necessary forms, notarizations and other items to complete their transactions.

While all Texas residents have been able to use credit and debit cards to renew their vehicle registrations online through the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles since 2001, those who visit the Harris County tax office in person have been able to use only cash or checks.

Some county tax offices already take plastic for motor vehicle fee payments in person, including in Dallas County, which first began allowing residents to use credit and debit cards for property and vehicle taxes more than two years ago, a spokesman said.

I pay my registration fees by mail so this hasn’t affected me personally, but as we know long lines at the Tax Assessor’s office is a problem that has needed solving, so kudos to Sullivan for taking this step. It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that in the year 2013 credit cards weren’t an option for something as basic as this – Harris County was one of the first counties to accept credit card payments for property taxes, after all. The state and the way it accepts payments from counties is partly responsible for this, but still. We’re two years behind Dallas. That’s embarrassing. Of course, given who our Tax Assessor was for those two years, it’s not terribly surprising. Consider it yet another reminder that elections do have consequences.

Anyway. Since as noted I do my payments by mail this doesn’t affect me, but it does make me wonder when those of us who pay this way will get the same service as well. It’s not a big deal from a time management perspective, but it would be nice to have the option to pay by credit card. Looking ahead, the next step would be online and mobile payments. Is someone working on an app to pay one’s vehicle registration fees? Surely we don’t want to hear that Dallas has beaten us again. Houston Politics has more.

No more inspection stickers

That’s the plan, and I think it makes a lot of sense.

Texas’ vehicle inspection stickers would become a thing of the past under legislation approved unanimously Monday by the state Senate.

But there’s a catch: Vehicles still would have to be inspected before they could be registered with the state, and diesel vehicles would, for the first time, have to pass an emissions test.

“Technology allows Texas to move away from vehicle inspection stickers, so we can combine the inspection with the registration,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the author of Senate Bill 1350.

Twenty-seven other states already use a single-sticker system, Department of Public Safety officials said Monday.

“It will mean there will be one registration sticker on your windshield, instead of that sticker and an inspection sticker. That’s one less sticker on your windshield that you can get a ticket for,” West said. “It’s about less stickers, less government.”

A study by DPS and the state Department of Motor Vehicles showed that the switch would reduce fraud, which has plagued the vehicle inspection system for years.

Here’s SB 1350, which still has to pass the House. The fraud issue is bigger and more extensive than you might think. By eliminating stickers and tying inspections to your vehicle registration, this would mean no more sticker stealing, and no more “surrogate” vehicles being inspected on behalf of some other car. I’m sure there will still be ways to cheat the system, but this is a step in the right direction. Plus, emissions testing for diesel vehicles is something we should have been doing for years. Good idea, good bill, let’s hope the House passes it.

Perry works against his own stated interests

I don’t understand this at all.

A bill that would have increased vehicle registration fees to raise money for transportation projects met its demise in the Texas House on Thursday.

House Bill 3664 by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, was designed to generate money to pay down the state’s transportation-related debt and fund improvements on non-tolled roads across Texas.

After a spirited discussion, Darby postponed the bill until May 28 — one day after the session ends and lawmakers go home. He cited pressure from outside forces that made voting for the measure difficult for some legislators.

Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday he would call a special session if fees were increased for transportation.

“Send me a balanced budget that has no fee increases for transportation and $2 billion for infrastructure for water, and everyone can go home and enjoy their summer,” he told reporters, explaining that he would call a special session if legislators don’t approve $1.8 billion in tax relief.

[…]

The bill highlighted divisions within the Legislature’s Republican majority. While some disagreed with the revenue raising approach to addressing transportation concerns, supporters of the bill said transportation funding needs were reaching a critical point.

“There’s no doubt that our transportation system is in dire crisis,” said Transportation Committee Chairman state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, who amended Darby’s bill to reduce the proposed fee increase from $30 to $15.

Phillips said the state was facing a $4 billion transportation funding shortfall, and he asserted that not addressing it was “a failure to lead.”

“Are you going to be a leader or are you going to just follow?” Phillips shouted at his colleagues.

“Baaaaaaaaaaa”, most of his colleagues replied. What’s truly amazing about this is that the original proposal for vehicle registration fees was to double them, which is to say increase them by $50, three times as much as Darby’s watered-down bill. That was proposed by Sen. Tommy Williams and endorsed by the Texas Association of Business, who I would think is a little miffed to be dissed like this, both by Perry and the nihilists at Empower Texas, who pushed a typically dishonest alternative instead. I didn’t think raising the registration fee was the best solution, but it wasn’t a terrible idea, and I was crazy enough to think it might be an acceptable solution for a serious need. That’ll learn me. So now we’ve got no transportation solution, no water solution, and no easy way to fund those solutions if we make another attempt at it. What once looked like a productive session is rapidly devolving into a big mess. Good luck sorting it all out in overtime. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: More from EoW and PDiddie.

Still arguing about road funding

I still don’t quite get why the obvious solution is so blithely dismissed.

With most of the work of developing a state budget behind them, lawmakers can now drill deeper into the state’s spending plan to find a way to fund billions of dollars in road maintenance, highway upgrades and other projects under the umbrella of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Highway department officials went into the session estimating the agency needed $4 billion more per year, about as much as it currently spends on new highway construction annually. To seriously dent the congestion crisis, some have said TxDOT needs about $12 billion per year. The agency is carrying about $23 billion in debt, as estimated by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

Under present scenarios, TxDOT will have about $2.5 billion for new construction in 2015. Lawmakers say this isn’t enough to meet the needs of a growing state.

“It is within our means to address it; we just need to do it,” said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Some revenue can come from relatively easy fixes, Williams and others said, such as ending diversions – mostly to law enforcement – from the revenue collected from Texas’ 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. Ending the diversions, about $1.5 billion a year, would create a funding gap somewhere else but would fulfill a goal of using all transportation tax revenues for roads, ports and rail.

The gas tax alone cannot pay for the improvements, however. Texas lawmakers have not increased it since 1993, creating a huge funding gap for road projects. Because of changed driving habits and better fuel mileage, Pickett noted, the average driver paid about $12.50 a month in fuel taxes two decades ago. Now that driver pays about $9.54. TxDOT estimates road construction costs have increased 62 percent in those 20 years.

Increasing the gas tax isn’t an option, officials said. For one, no one supports raising taxes, Williams said. Secondly, as cars become more fuel efficient and electric vehicles grow in popularity, the usefulness of the tax is declining.

Ending diversions, most of which is funding for the Department of Public Safety, is a popular option, but as noted no one ever discusses how to fill the hole in general revenue that would leave. It now looks likely that money from the Rainy Day Fund will be used to start an infrastructure bank, but that’s one-time money and all this would really do is push more of the responsibility for transportation away from the state and to counties, which among other things would mean a lot more toll roads. Williams’ preferred solution is raising vehicle registration fees, which has support from the Texas Association of Business. I don’t necessarily oppose this, but I haven’t seen a comparison of how much revenue that would bring in versus how much a ten-cent increase in the gas tax would bring. I recognize that advances in fuel efficiency and the advent of hybrids and electric cars makes the gas tax a declining source over time, but it’s still the single biggest source of revenue for transportation, and it’s the only one that has any connection to how much one uses roads and highways. It’s also the case that a small increase in the gas tax plus indexing it to inflation of construction costs would wipe this problem out. Down the line, a transition to a vehicle miles traveled tax can deal with the issue of less revenue from better fuel efficiency. I know, I know, nobody likes raising taxes but now that we are finally admitting to the need for more revenue it just amazes me at how quickly the most obvious solution is dismissed. Can’t we at least talk about what it would look like to raise the gas tax so we can have a basis for comparison to all these other proposals? A more informed discussion, that’s all I’m asking for.

We’re not going to solve our transportation issues without new revenue

The choice isn’t whether or not to pay, it’s how do you want to pay.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

Despite broad agreement that repairing and improving Texas highways will cost more money than it has in the past, legislators split Monday on whether now is the time to impose new transportation taxes or fees.

House members attending the annual Texas Transportation Forum said lawmakers were unlikely to support increasing transportation revenues. Senators, however, said this seemed unavoidable.

“There are times when taxes are the conservative thing to do,” said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

Across Texas, transportation officials estimate they need an additional $3 billion for new construction and $1 billion for maintenance. With state and federal coffers tight, conference attendees said, new revenue sources are the best solution – but a tough sell to lawmakers.

“It should be looked at as an investment, not an expense,” said William Thompson Jr., former New York City controller, a speaker at the transportation forum.

The recent template for getting projects moving in Texas has been development agreements between the Texas Department of Transportation and regional officials, and $13 billion in borrowing. State transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said the three most recent Houston-area projects to proceed – construction of part of the Grand Parkway and improvements to U.S. 290 and Texas 288 – advanced through partnerships with the Harris County Toll Road Authority and other adjacent counties.

But now “the credit card is maxed” and new taxes are likely, Eltife said.

“I was fine before I came to this office, and if they kick me out of office I’ll be fine,” Eltife said to applause from the crowd.

I’d need to look up the amount, but all that borrowing we’ve done to finance road projects in Texas is going to cost us a lot of money in interest payments. That’s another thing that will need to be paid for somehow. The solutions being discussed now include not diverting any more funds from the gas tax revenue, which would add about $300 million to the road funds but which would leave a hole of the same size in general revenue – the diversion is mostly to pay for the Department of Public Safety, so ending that diversion is no sure thing – and doubling the vehicle registration fee, which has a reasonable shot at passing and would raise about $1 billion. Personally, I think Sen. Eltife is right, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can start actually making headway on this. It may be the case that driverless cars will ultimately reduce the amount of road space we need, but who knows when that might happen, and until then there are some crying needs that have to be addressed. Better and in the long run cheaper to accept reality now. The DMN, the Trib, Dallas Transportation, and EoW have more.

Speeding tickets and vehicle registration

I confess, I’m puzzled by this.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Barbara Hartle has a proposal on Wednesday’s City Council agenda to sign an agreement with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles that would have the state refuse to issue vehicle registrations to people who have outstanding traffic fines.

As proposed by Hartle, by investing about $20,000 a year into compiling lists of scofflaws and coordinating with the state, the city could reap a windfall of $432,000 a year in higher collections.

Two years ago, a similar proposal involving red-light camera runners was rebuffed by the county. City officials had proposed registration holds on red-light runners caught on camera. It required the buy-in of the county tax assessor-collector, who issues license plates and stickers. Leo Vasquez, then the tax collector, agreed to the deal and made the pitch to Commissioners Court. Because the county gets a cut of the fee when it issues a registration and would, essentially, be forfeiting revenue for cracking down on city scofflaws, Commissioners Court rejected the deal.

This time, the tax collector who would be in charge of placing the holds sits on the council, and he does not like Hartle’s plan. District E Councilman Mike Sullivan was elected tax assessor-collector this month and will leave the council in January when he is sworn in at the county.

“In my mind, it’s nothing more than an attempt to have the county collect fees and fines that the city should collect on their own,” Sullivan said. “It looks like the mayor wants to push this over to the county as another layer of enforcement to collect money for the city.”

Sullivan said he opposes the arrangement as he intends to fulfill campaign promises to shorten the lines at the tax office windows. In addition, he said he is worried that holds could mistakenly be placed on people who do not owe fines.

I understood the county not wanting to help with enforcing the collection of red light camera fines. This I have a harder time with. There’s no policy dispute about the legitimacy of the fines being imposed as there was with red light cameras. I appreciate Sullivan’s concerns about possibly ensnaring someone who doesn’t owe a fine, but surely this is a less intrusive approach than involving a collection agency or filing a lawsuit, which would be the options left to the city. This would also be by far the least expensive way to collect outstanding fines, which makes it the most efficient use of taxpayer money. I don’t get the reluctance to get involved. I note that the last time this issue came up, the ultimate decision rested with Commissioners Court, who overruled then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez on red light camera fine enforcement. Tax Assessor-Elect Sullivan’s disapproval may therefore not be the final word on this.

UPDATE: Today’s story, from after Council approved the plan on a 14-1 vote, adds some more detail and shows a possible path forward.

Council’s action essentially means scofflaws will not be able to renew their registrations on the DMV website. Instead, they will have to go to the window at the tax office, where tax assessor Don Sumners said he will continue to issue registrations even if the state prints the word “scofflaw” on their renewal forms.

“I don’t think they (the city) could pay us enough for the services it would cause.We don’t have enough people as it is,” Sumners said.

[…]

Sullivan said he also believes the city should not offload its collections operations onto county government. He left the door open to a deal after he is sworn in as tax assessor in January, though, if City Attorney David Feldman is the city’s broker.

“He’s apolitical,” Sullivan said. “This administration is nothing but political and has not been honest and direct and transparent with me as a council member. However, Mr. Feldman has always been fair with me in all of my dealings.”

So there you have it.

Fee for all

Fees are part of the answer for Texas’ pressing infrastructure needs, but they aren’t and cannot be the whole solution.

To help keep the Texas business climate robust, lawmakers should double state fees on motor vehicle registrations and impose a new fee on every water meter in the state, the state’s largest business lobbying group said Thursday.

Economic development competitors are using Texas’ lack of investment in water resources and roads against it, and the fees could help the state address those issues, Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, told a special committee of lawmakers and business leaders.

Other states are telling companies, “Don’t go to Texas. They’re not investing in infrastructure,” Hammond told the Select Committee on Economic Development. The committee is studying how to encourage continued business development.

[…]

The business group is suggesting a $1.50 monthly fee on every water meter as well as every irrigation well in a water conservation district. Hammond estimated that the fee would raise $150 million a year to encourage local governments to develop new water resources.

Likewise, Hammond said, increasing the motor registration fee would raise more than $1 billion a year for highway construction. That money, according to the Texas Association of Business report, could be leveraged into $14 billion to $16 billion in bonds for new roads.

Most motorists now pay $50.75 per vehicle to the state and another $5 to $11.50 in local fees.

Hammond said, “The business community feels so strongly, we are willing to offer a specific solution.”

That solution, however, has critics.

Dick Lavine, a fiscal analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said he agrees that the state needs to invest more in transportation, water and education. But he disagrees with using fees that hit well-off people the same as the poor people.

“They pretend that everyone has the same ability to pay,” Lavine said. “We’d like something so those who can afford more, pay more.”

Hammond countered there is little appetite in the Legislature for raising taxes.

Usually when there is a pressing need for something that isn’t popular, functional societies rely on something called “leadership” to make it happen. You know, the whole “doing the right thing” thing. Regressive though they may be, I don’t have any abiding objections to these fees, but let’s get real: Neither will raise nearly enough money to solve the problems. Raising the gas tax is still the best option, and if done right could just about wipe out the transportation funding deficit. The water issue is somewhat more intractable, but hey, that’s what we elected these people to figure out. It’s on them to get it done, and it’s on them if they don’t.

The Lege is going to have to spend some money

Whether they want to or not, there are a lot of issues that will be demanding attention and money from the Legislature when they convene in January. For example, there’s water.

House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday the state’s water supply will be among his priorities after years of inaction by lawmakers. In the previous session, the House balked at two bills intended to create the first permanent funding source for a new round of reservoirs, pipelines and other projects to avoid grave shortages in 2060.

The plan would cost an estimated $53 billion, which proved too much for a spending-averse Legislature two years ago.

“That’s always where the conversation breaks down,” Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said of the price tag. “With water, the numbers can be so daunting that it is tempting to throw up your hands.

“We need to begin making some progress. I don’t expect to complete it in one year, but we do need to take the first step.”

[…]

In the 2011 session, state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Republican, proposed a tap fee that water users would pay each month for the next 15 years. He also sought the transfer of $500 million from the System Benefit Fund, which was created to help low-income people pay utility bills.

The two bills, which supporters said would have generated $27 billion for the plan, died in a House committee.

Straus did not say how he would help fund the plan, but suggested all options would be on the table.

“I do not want to see a newspaper headline saying a company is uprooting from Texas to move to a water-rich state because we have not addressed this issue,” he said. “Without water, we cannot have a good future for this state.

“We have decisions, but we have no choice.”

The scary thing isn’t the price of this project, or that its price tag is triple what it was a decade ago but that the recent amelioration of the drought has removed any sense of urgency from the Lege to take action. The time to do something was in 2011 when the state was being slow roasted like a bag of coffee beans, but now that we’ve had some rain it’ll be easy enough for spending-averse legislators to rationalize procrastinating again. Despite Speaker Straus’ apparent determination, I will not be surprised if this gets punted.

There’s roads.

The Texas Association of Business has thrown its support behind a $50 hike in the annual fee Texas drivers pay to register vehicles, with the money earmarked for new transportation projects. Meanwhile, some key lawmakers favor dedicating to roads the sales tax from vehicle purchases that Texans already pay.

As the 2013 legislative session approaches, transportation advocates have been trying to draw more attention to severe shortages in road funding, stressing that delaying road work around the state will lead to more congested roads and more expensive fixes later on.

“The cost of doing nothing is very expensive,” said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who was appointed chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee earlier this month.

[…]

“Clearly this is a difficult task, but the business community in Texas feels like it’s spending an awful lot of time waiting in traffic,” Hammond said. “This would be new money coming in for maybe $15-16 billion of bonds for road construction.”

Rather than raising a current fee, Nichols wants to take a tax that many Texans already pay and dedicate the revenue to roads. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicate the sales tax on new and used vehicle purchases to expanding and maintaining the state highway system and to paying off transportation-related debt. The money currently goes into the state’s catch-all general revenue fund.

The change could be phased in slowly over 10 years so as not to “wreck the budget,” Nichols said. Though the amount of revenue raised for roads would be small at first, knowing that the revenue stream would grow would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to move quickly on perhaps $10 billion worth of new projects, he said.

Nichols predicted that the public would back such a measure because it makes intuitive sense.

As long as you overlook the fact that it won’t bring any new revenue into the system, thus meaning that other parts of the budget would be sacrificed for roads, then sure, it makes sense. It’s just undoing what’s been done before, with funding for things like DPS coming out of the gasoline tax. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to the inflation rate for construction is still the best option, but the increased registration fee at least has the merit of being new revenue and having some support behind it to begin with.

All that’s without even getting into Medicaid, which remember was underfunded by five billion dollars last biennium, or public education, for which an array of freshman Republicans are claiming they support despite the $5 billion they cut from it. (State Rep. Mike Villarreal passed along this handy chart of how much those cuts affected each ISD in Texas.) Whether we expand Medicaid or not, we will be spending more money on it because we have such a large number of poor, otherwise-uninsured residents. I have no idea how the next Legislature is going to deal with these issues – burying their heads in the sand and denying the existence of the problem is always the strong favorite, with obfuscating the issue a close runner-up – but like it or not, they’re there to be dealt with.

Chron overview of the Tax Assessor primary

Having just reported on the vehicle registration problems at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, the Chron now writes about the GOP primary for that office.

A Houston Chronicle story Friday reported Sumners’ staff is working overtime to process a backlog of auto registrations so motorists are not ticketed for driving with expired decals. [Challenger Mike] Sullivan said current and former tax office workers have reached out to share concerns with its operations.

[Incumbent Don] Sumners blamed the backlog on a communication breakdown among staff and county budget cuts. Sumners fired seven managers after taking office, in part to save money, and laid off another 25 clerks after budget cuts came down a year ago.

“In effect, I could take their place because of the experience that I had and the education that I had,” Sumners said. “When asked about what he would do since he doesn’t have the experience, (Sullivan’s) response was, ‘I’d hire people that do.’ That’d be great if there was money in the budget.”

Sullivan said Sumners’ removal of those seven managers was not a benefit to taxpayers because it took out institutional knowledge that could have improved the office’s operations.

“The budget cut that has been imposed on the tax office now is not significant enough to justify the long lines that are there. I’ve worked at City Hall now for five years with decreasing budgets and more demand on services. We have done more with less,” Sullivan said. “After (former tax assessor) Paul (Bettencourt) left the office, there’s been a continual decline and degradation in service, and it’s got to be turned around.”

When you cut funding for a government service, you are arguing – implicitly or explicitly – one of two things: Either the same level of service can be provided with less funding, or the service cutbacks that will be necessitated are good things in and of themselves. By cutting staff, including all those managers whose work Sumners said he could do himself, Sumners is making the former argument. Clearly, however, it is not the case that the service is being provided at the same level as it had been. I continue to be fascinated by the extent to which Sumners is blaming other factors for this drop in service – a three percent increase in new car sales and title transactions (I base that calculation on the numbers cited by Sumners in the original Chron story; budget cuts that led to the staff reductions that Sumners himself implemented; “communications breakdowns”, whatever that means – but I have not seen in either of these stories a statement from him that he owns the problem and is working to fix it. I have a low opinion of Sumners so I can’t say I’m surprised at any of this, but it’s always nice to have one’s opinions validated by the facts.

Sullivan, for his part, lists on his Issues tab a desire to keep all 15 branch offices open and to “reduce long lines at branch offices”. One presumes that would require more staff, which in turn means more money for the Tax Assessor’s office. It’s not clear how he plans to accomplish that, though he does also say that he wants to “embrace new technology to improve services for constituents (i.e., kiosks that accept payments so people do not have to stand in line to make payments; use electronic delivery for tax bills to those who want them as opposed to mailing out physical tax bills)”. That’s all laudable and I’d support it, but it too will cost money up front. Again I wonder what Commissioners Court thinks of all this, since they are both the implicit target of Sumners’ whining about budget cuts as well as the source of any funding Sullivan would request to fix these problems. Sheriff Adrian Garcia eventually convinced the Court to let him hire more deputies to help reduce the amount he had to spend on overtime, so it can be done. We just don’t know yet what their default position is.

Of course, if we really want a change at this position, it’s not the primary that matters but the November election and the candidacy of Ann Harris Bennett, who was one of the Democrats’ top votegetters as the County Clerk candidate in the 2010 debacle. Bennett is certainly qualified for the job, and while she’s not getting much attention now as she’s unopposed for the nomination, she’s one of the most important Democrats on the Harris County ballot this year. I guarantee you, we’ll have far fewer problems with voter registration if Bennett wins this fall. I feel pretty certain that if she can handle that – and she can – she can do a better job with auto registrations as well.

I got those can’t get my car registration done on time blues

I have three things to say about this.

The Harris County tax office is paying 32 clerks overtime on weekends to eliminate a large backlog of unprocessed auto registrations, a potentially serious problem that could force some motorists to drive with expired decals.

Drivers can receive costly tickets and civil penalties for lapsed vehicle registration and cannot use the backlog as an excuse, tax officials stressed.

Since the overtime crew began last weekend, processing the mail-in renewals is down to 12 working days, said Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners. Last week, a clerk answering the helpline said mail-in renewals were taking four weeks because of the backlog in April.

That means potentially thousands of motorists who mailed in their registrations – those expiring at the end of April – did not get them by May 1. The tax office was advising residents who wanted to drive their car legally to come to a tax office or one of 200 local stores where registrations are sold and purchase a second sticker, then apply for a refund when the renewal sticker arrives in the mail.

Sumners blamed the backlog on last year’s countywide budget cuts, which caused a 9 percent personnel reduction. He also cited a boost in local car sales. Auto registrations in 2011 were up 100,000 from 3.3 million in 2010, while new title transactions grew from 845,000 to 880,000.

“We’re operating under a reduced staffing level, as is all of the county,” said Sumners, adding the auto registration section is down 22 employees. “The problem that we have is the volume keeps growing even though the economy’s not good.”

[…]

Paul Bettencourt, the previous tax collector, expressed surprise at the length of the backlog and said that in the past, staff were cross-trained and assigned to busy areas as the work flow demanded.

“They need to shift people to work the backlog,” Bettencourt said. “You put all hands on deck and transfer people in from other departments.”

1. Finally, a story that appropriately quotes Private Citizen Paul Bettencourt! I knew if we hung around long enough this would happen eventually. I feel like I should commission a plaque to commemorate the occasion.

2. It sure is hilarious to see Mister “I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool” whine about the negative effects of cutting government spending, isn’t it? I’m told the answer is to do more with less, Don. Good luck with that.

On a more serious note, I understand that cutbacks do affect us all, that the distribution of auto registrations is not uniform over the year, that there were more cars bought this year than was expected, and that all this is happening right as voter registration cards finally got sent out. I also understand that processing registrations is one of the main functions of this office. Was there really no contingency for dealing with an unexpected increase in the load level?

3. When you blame budget cuts for a problem like this, you’re really blaming Commissioners Court for not adequately funding the office. As such, the absence of a quote from a commissioner is notable. If this had been a story about the Sheriff’s Office dropping the ball on a basic operational matter, I feel confident we’d have been treated to the wit and wisdom of Steve Radack. I wonder what he thinks about this situation and Sumners’ response to it. Campos has more.

Collecting unpaid red light camera fines update

You may recall that when the city settled its lawsuit with red light camera vendor ATS, they agreed to pay a certain amount of money that would be generated by collecting still-unpaid red light camera fines. Ted Oberg has an update on how that effort is going.

The cameras are gone but the effects linger still

After Houston voters told Mayor Annise Parker to take the cameras down in 2010, the city settled with the camera company for $4.8 million.

The mayor told Houstonians the money to fill that pot would come from unpaid fines. The city had $3 million in the bank from those who’ve already paid, which was a start. That money brought the settlement down to $1.8 million. But now, the city needs to collect nearly $53,000 every month until the end of 2014 to make up the difference.

The first month the city was just $111 short. The second month, they were short by $18,000 from what they needed to collect.

This month is off to a better start with half the money already in, so they may finally meet the goal for the first time.

[…]

The city’s sent thousands of letters to people who haven’t paid bills all across the country and seems confident that after years of ignoring the bills, the citizens will now start paying.

“We’re not ready to say we’re not going to meet that goal because of the steps that we’re taking. We’re going to start with Phase One, which is mailing a reminder that you have this debt that is owed to the city; after that, we’ll take the next step and we’ll turn it over to the credit bureau. And then in the most extreme cases, we’ll consider the possibility of filing a lawsuit,” Parker’s spokeswoman Janice Evans said.

The city can send the debt to credit bureaus and will file some lawsuits for big debtors, but the law won’t allow them to send it to a collection agency or put holds on registrations.

Actually, the law does allow for holds to be put on registrations, but it’s the county that handles those, and they have not agreed to play along. Which has not stopped the city from acting as if they do. I don’t expect it will get any easier from here, so I figure it’s just a matter of time before some lawsuits get filed.

HPD sends “Pay your red light camera ticket or else” letter

With predictable results.

Houston police have notified 79,000 motorists that they cannot renew their vehicle registrations until they pay red light camera fines and penalties, even though Harris County officials repeatedly have said they will not prevent people from registering their vehicles because of the outstanding citations.

Police Chief Charles McClelland denied critics’ charges the Houston Police Department’s collection campaign relies on scare tactics, but he acknowledged HPD has no legal agreement to block registration of Harris County residents who owe red-light camera fines. He said that some of the red light violations were committed by residents in adjacent counties that are enforcing the registration holds.

[…]

At a news conference at HPD headquarters Thursday a sample warning letter distributed to reporters featured a warning across the top in large lettering.

“The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has placed a Hold on the registration renewal of this vehicle,“ the notice states. “Registration of this vehicle cannot be renewed until this past due fine is paid.’

That warning is true in counties where the Commissioners Court has agreed to block registrations or for those who attempt to renew their registration online through the state, but McClelland said it was not incumbent on HPD to inform motorists they still could register their vehicles in Harris County. He noted that tickets have been issued to vehicle owners in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Montgomery counties.

Apparently, there’s some fine print on the back that says your local county tax assessor “may” refuse to register the vehicle. So it’s misleading and likely to fool people who don’t know that Harris County isn’t cooperating with Houston on this, but not a flat out lie. Not their finest moment, but at least there’s that. As you might imagine, camera opponents don’t much care for this.

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, an outspoken opponent of the cameras, said he found it “troubling” HPD sent out letters “stating a fact that is untrue.” He also questioned the document for having the appearance of being from HPD when it originated in Scotsdale, the home of ATS, the city contractor that installed the cameras at 70 intersections and administers the program.

“There is such a strong effort to collect a fine, that seems to be the primary message and focus of this notice,” Sullivan said. “It’s saying, ‘We’re going to tell you whatever we have to tell you to intimidate you to mail your fine in.’ They’re making their own rules and the public doesn’t know any better.”

With all due respect to CM Sullivan, the police lie to people all the time. It’s a widely accepted tactic for interrogations, with broad latitude being granted to detectives by the Supreme Court. I appreciate the concern – I certainly find a lot of this to be troubling – but if this bothers you, there’s a lot more where that came from.

And again, if the complaint is about the money, I reiterate my issues with that argument. I sympathize with the concerns about deception, but beyond that I find it difficult to feel sorry for the people who got these letters, especially since I know that if they ignore them, nothing will happen to them.

County doesn’t want to help city collect red light camera fines

Last year, City Council passed an ordinance that would put a hold on vehicle registrations for which there are outstanding red light camera fines. The city’s ability to do this is contingent on cooperation from the county, as it is the Tax Assessor’s office that handles vehicle registrations. As the city prepares to vote on a contract to reimburse the Tax Assessor’s office for its efforts in flagging those records, Commissioners Court has thrown a wrench into the plan.

Last month, Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed reluctance about the contract and asked that it be removed from the agenda for further study. Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez had asked commissioners to approve a five-year, $36,000-a-year contract with the city to reimburse his office for processing the flagged records, telling the court he expected few citizens would be turned away.

The Texas Transportation Code gives the county tax collector the option to refuse to register a vehicle if a red-light camera citation is owed, but only if the owner has been given two notices demanding payment. In addition, Texas law allows refusal of vehicle registration if the owner has an outstanding warrant for failure to appear to pay a city traffic fine, or owes the county money for taxes, fees or fines. Currently, the county only blocks vehicle registrations for motorists who have delinquent tollroad fines.

[…]

[Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia] Garcia said she is concerned that residents whose registrations are blocked could face penalties if they are ticketed for an expired registration.

“All it does if you tack on fees, you’re going to make if more difficult to collect and right now is not the time to be beating someone to death with fines and fees,” said Garcia, former chief of Houston municipal courts.

Emphasis mine. I appreciate Commissioner Garcia’s concern, but if it is such a concern, isn’t it also a concern for toll road scofflaws? Harris County is mighty vigilant about collecting the fines it is owed, which can be substantial in some cases, and it has the authority to arrest those who don’t pay. Does this mean that the Court thinks that now is also not the time to enforce the collection of EZ Tag violations as well? Or is that different somehow?

One more thing:

County Judge Ed Emmett questioned why the county was being asked to block registration only of those with unpaid red-light camera citations, and not those who failed to pay tickets issued by police.

George Hammerlein, director of inter-governmental affairs with the tax office, said the data from red-light camera citations is easier to use than criminal court data, which can be difficult to determine whether a conviction is final.

“Other counties do it and it works quite well,” he said. “Montgomery County even checks to see if you’ve paid your property taxes. We do it for the Harris County Toll Road Authority — if you don’t pay your toll road fines, you’ll get a flag and can’t register your car till you pay them.”

It’s interesting to me that the Tax Assessor’s office is now on board with this idea. They had expressed skepticism about it when it was first proposed. I wonder if the departure of Paul Bettencourt had anything to do with that, or if it’s just the case that the city managed to answer all of their questions. More background on this matter here and from KUHF, KTRK, and Grits.