Exasperated Texas legislators began this past session committed to correcting the state’s troubled driver’s license registration system and to stop throwing good money after bad trying to do it.
It will be at least a year before the legislature knows if it accomplished either of those goals.
As expected, lawmakers approved a plan to move the sprawling system of driver’s license centers from the state Department of Public Safety to the Department of Motor Vehicles, just one of the reforms in Senate Bill 616.
Unexpected by those lawmakers impatient for progress was a contingency plan that added $212.4 million to the DPS budget, much of that for hiring 762 more full-time driver’s license workers, reclassifying and boosting the pay of some current DPS employees, and building and staffing two new driver’s license centers.
The legislature has now poured more than $650 million into DPS over the last four sessions, in a thus-far futile attempt to reduce waiting times at many of the state’s 235 driver’s license offices.
The architects of the transfer plan, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, pointed out that DPS is under the gun to provide results.
Included in the new funding is $1 million for the DPS to complete a study by Sept. 1, 2020, aimed at convincing the next regular session of the legislature that DPS should continue as the agency in charge of the roughly five million license transactions a year. Otherwise, the entire system will automatically transfer to DMV on Sept. 1, 2021.
“They certainly have the money and the new FTEs [full-time equivalency positions] to get it done,” Bettencourt told The Texas Monitor. “There is simply no excuse for there not being enhanced performance, and I mean dramatically enhanced performance by the time the legislature revisits this.”
Bettencourt was among several Senate Finance Committee members who remained unconvinced after DPS Director Steven McCraw assured them in January that he was capable of making the driver’s license operation a “shining example of state services.”
“The way DPS has handled driver’s licenses in the State of Texas is despicable,” Gov. Greg Abbott said a few days after the hearing, “and it has been non-responsive.”
Birdwell, author of SB616 and also a member of the finance panel, told The Texas Monitor he believed the DMV’s culture of customer service was better suited for issuing and renewing driver’s licenses.
Little in the past seven years suggested DPS could offer itself as a shining example. Lawmakers came into the session with a detailed and withering critique of the driver’s license operation by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission.
The report recounts the $63 million spent to build driver’s license “mega-centers” in the state’s most populous areas in 2012. Customers flocked to the new centers and wait times ballooned. The allotment of at least $100 million more in each of the sessions that followed produced little relief.
At the end of the 2017 session DPS officials, bristling because of an overall budget cut, threatened to lay off more than 100 of its driver’s license customer service reps and slash operating hours at several of its centers.
The Sunset Advisory Commission report recommended DPS improve its overall efficiency by closing 87 mostly rural license offices.
In both cases, political pressure not only prevented the cutbacks but encouraged increased funding, despite Birdwell’s bill calling for the transfer to the DMV.
DMV spokesman Adam Shaivitz told The Texas Monitor in March, “If properly funded and staffed, Texas DMV believes it could successfully take on the responsibilities of driver licensing, should it be the desire of state leadership.”
However, a review of DMV operations during this past session convinced Birdwell that the motor vehicle agency was not ready to immediately take over the license operation. “Doing this study will make sure we aren’t simply transferring a challenging program from one agency with too many tasks … to another that isn’t ready, without making any substantive changes to help fix the current issues,” Birdwell told The Texas Monitor.
“Simply moving the driver’s license program this session and claiming a victory would have been disingenuous to citizens and would not have solved the current problems,” he said.
Rather than put everything on hold until completion of the study, a conference committee made up of House and Senate members, including Bettencourt, met in the waning days of the session and quietly added the $212.4 million to the overall DPS budget bill (Please see page 48 of the conference committee report).
The package includes $141.5 million for the 762 new positions and $51.3 million to reclassify customer service staffers as license permit specialists at a higher salary. Sometime in 2020 DPS is expected to open new driver’s license offices in Denton and Angleton, about 45 miles south of Houston, at a cost of up to $8 million for each office.
In the coming year, the DPS has also been asked to run a three-month trial, extending weekday operating hours to 9 p.m. in two urban and two rural driver’s license offices, and produce a detailed report of the results. The four offices have not yet been selected.
In addition to stating the case for continued DPS oversight, the study is also expected to outline the challenges of moving operations to DMV.
Although Birdwell and Bettencourt have made clear their preference for the transfer, both said they are open to what DPS might propose to make them change their minds. The best customer service is the only goal, they said.
“I think it’s time for them to get it done,” Bettencourt said.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].