Stumping in East Texas, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White said GOP Gov. Rick Perry's proposal regarding high school dropouts and drivers' licenses has a glaring weakness.
"You know the problem with that plan?" White told a group, according to an Aug. 9 news report by Houston's KRIV-TV. "That's been state law since 1989. And he's been responsible for enforcing it. We're tired of the spin."
Was Perry's plan really old hat? More than White knew, as it turns out. First, let's review.
Back in January, Perry issued a press release saying: "I believe that in order for high school-aged individuals to get and keep a driver's license they should be enrolled in school, be it bricks and mortar or our virtual high school, and, most importantly, working toward their diploma or GED."
Perry said he was calling on the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Education Agency to "work with local school districts to further leverage the privilege of a driver’s license as an incentive to keep students engaged in the education process."
Problem: White's campaign spokeswoman, Katy Bacon, pointed out state law already stipulates that minors seeking a driver's license submit proof that they're in school, specifically a Verification of Enrollment form.
Bacon cited information posted online by the TEA, including this: "A Texas law was passed in 1989 requiring that persons under 18 years of age must be enrolled and attending school as a condition of licensing that person to operate a motor vehicle. There was an exception: if the person had a high school diploma or a GED, the driver license could be issued."
The Texas Transportation Code specifies the requirements for provisional driver's licenses, the kind usually issued to people under 18: The applicant must be at least 16 years old, have passed a state-approved driver-education course, have a high school diploma or its equivalent or be a student who attended school (including home school) for at least 80 days in the fall or spring semester preceding the application date.
Former State Rep. Bill Hammond, R-Dallas, authored the school-attendance requirement that passed in 1989. Hammond, now president of the Texas Association of Business, told us that he reacted as White did when he heard of Perry's 2010 proposal. "My thought was that it's (already) in the law," Hammond said.
Not so fast, Perry's campaign told us: The governor is focusing on students who got their licenses and then dropped out. In other words, his proposal applies to teen drivers keeping their licenses, not getting them -- though Perry himself has not always been clear on that point.
For instance, in a speech prepared for delivery Aug. 12 in West Texas, Perry said, "I have proposed a simple accountability measure requiring school enrollment or progress to a GED if they want to keep a Texas driver's license." Yet on July 15, KVUE-TV reported that Perry told a Houston news conference: "If you are of high school age and you are not in a bricks and mortar or virtual high school, you are not going to get a driver's license. It's that simple."
Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said the governor's concept is simple: He wants the education agency and DPS to figure out what legislation would be necessary to revoke the licenses of high school dropouts. "High school students should not be able to have the privilege of driving if they are not enrolled in school," Frazier said.
Advantage Perry? Nope, said White's campaign, which argued that existing law also has this covered, since it requires teen drivers to renew their provisional licenses every year until they turn 18. (Typically that means only one renewal, at age 17.) "Dropouts who already have licenses cannot renew them; so they will effectively be relinquished," Bacon said.
Then we discovered that in 2009, the Legislature passed -- and Perry signed -- a measure that repealed that provision. House Bill 339 also imposed some new requirements on teen drivers. But once a typical 16-year-old gets a license, he or she can now keep it until turning 18, when proof of school attendance is no longer required.
Why did lawmakers take that step? Sara Haenes, chief of staff for the bill's author, Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said the intent was to set up a more efficient way for DPS to find out when kids drop out of school so it could revoke their licenses without delay. The bill called for the DPS and TEA to "enter into a memorandum of understanding" under which the law enforcement agency can access state electronic records to verify a student’s enrollment in public school.
That sounds a lot like what Perry is proposing. According to a July 19 online report by El Paso's KVIA-TV, Perry would have the education agency alert the DPS when a student drops out of high school, and the DPS would revoke the teen's license. Frazier confirmed that the TV station had accurately presented the proposal.
When we asked her how Perry's plan differs from the bill he signed into law in 2009, Frazier said it would keep closer track of a teen driver's school status, while the new law specifies that DPS "may only access information necessary to verify the identity and enrollment status of a license renewal applicant."
Since teens no longer have to renew their licenses, we're not sure how that would work. Besides, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger told us that while the agency is still talking with TEA, "there is currently no process available that provides the timely data necessary to accomplish enrollment verification electronically."
The upshot: Instead of cracking down on teen drivers who drop out of school, state law has lightened up, since teens no longer have to submit proof of enrollment to keep their licenses.
That was news to White's campaign, which fired another salvo after learning of the change last week. "The old law kept dropouts from keeping their licenses," Bacon said. "Then he (Perry) took that away. Now he wants it back."
It was also news to Hammond, who told us he would have opposed the change had he known about it. It's not mentioned on the DPS website page for under-25 drivers, which still says provisional licenses expire every year, unless renewed.
As for White's claim, the candidate is right that a 1989 law required teens under 18 to show they're in school or have graduated before they can get their driver's licenses -- and on that point, Perry offered nothing new.
But White overlooked the fact that Perry did propose a change, aimed at toughening the law that was in place for the past 20 years to cause dropouts to lose their licenses at renewal time.
However, it wasn't entirely new. Last year Perry signed a bill into law that had a similar goal but removed the renewal requirement entirely.
We rate White's statement Half True.