Texas premarital program draws little interest

FORT WORTH, Texas — A program that offers lower marriage license fees for couples who go through an eight-hour course on married life before exchanging vows has drawn little interest since its inception two years ago.

The Twogether in Texas program was hotly debated when it was put before the Legislature in 2007. But according to information provided to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by state agencies, fewer than 15 percent of all marriage licenses over the past two years were related to the program.

That does not faze the program's author, state Rep. Warren Chisum.

"The teaching of the course is working fine, and I have no intention of modifying that," the Pampa Republican told the Star-Telegram for a story in Thursday's editions. "We just have to figure out more ways to get more people to take the course (rather) than pay the double fee."

The proposal drew considerable debate when Chisum made it to the 2007 Texas Legislature. Chisum proposed raising the state marriage license fee from $30 to $100 and exempting program participants from paying the state fee. He said his aim was to strengthen marriages, but the proposal drew criticism that the increase would siphon revenue from local governments if too many participated.

Lawmakers eventually raised the state fee for marriage licenses to $60 with a waiver for Twogether participants, who pay only local fees.

The Star-Telegram reports that the percentage of couples receiving the discount in the program's second year increased in both Tarrant and Harris counties, but remained low. In Tarrant County, the percentage increased from 6.5 percent in fiscal year 2009 to 9 percent in the year ended Sept. 31, according to Patrick Jordan, the county's vital records manager. The Harris County percentage remained below 5 percent both years, according to the county clerk's office.

Because of the sparse participation in the program, the license fees have generated increased government revenue. The state keeps half of each state marriage license fee payment and leaves the other half with the local government where the license was obtained.

Chisum is mounting a challenge from the right to the House speakership of state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. He said he was not trying to make money for the state off the higher fee. "We just hoped more people would take the course."

Dick Levine, senior fiscal analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a research non-profit that studies issues affecting low-income Texans, said Chisum's aim for the program was ironic.

"That is, in fact, social engineering," he told the newspaper. "It's the kind of thing that conservatives have traditionally opposed, using the tax code to direct people toward certain behavior."

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Information from: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, http://www.star-telegram.com