Fix it or lose it — that may be legislators’ message to DPS over driver’s license hassles

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Austin traffic

Anyone who has renewed a driver’s license in Texas in the last seven years can tell you the good that more than $440 million in taxes has done for overall customer service.

Officials for the Department of Public Safety, the agency that oversees 235 driver’s license centers and a statewide call center, is back again in this session of the Texas Legislature asking for another $420 million over the next biennium to fix problems with the driver’s license process  — the same thing they’ve done over the last several sessions.

This time, as DPS director Steven McCraw assured the Senate Finance Committee in late January, he intends to make getting a driver’s license a “shining example of state services.”

If state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, has his way, DPS won’t get any more chances after 2021 to achieve that. Buried deep in Birdwell’s Senate Bill 616 is a plan to shift all driver’s license responsibilities by that time to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, an alignment used by most other states.

“Look, I don’t think more money is the answer to this,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, told The Texas Monitor. Bettencourt was one of several members of the finance committee who expressed their frustration with the DPS.

“DPS is primarily a law enforcement agency, a first responder outfit. It [driver’s license responsibilities] should be moved to DMV. It’s a different kind of agency that can focus on the customer service question exclusively,” he said.

McCraw hasn’t said publicly whether he agrees with the proposal. The Texas Monitor contacted his office but he did not return a call before publication.

“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,” DMV spokesman Adam Shaivitz told The Texas Monitor.

His department has formed working groups to study public and political support for the move and the changes in management, communications, facilities, budget, personnel, culture, technology and processes necessary to make it successful, Shaivitz said.

Birdwell’s omnibus DPS bill, which has been referred to the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs & Border Security, calls for hiring a consultant to address feasibility questions no later than Sept. 1, 2020, before a final decision on the move is made.

All full-time DPS positions would become full-time DMV positions, according to the bill.

The recommendation to move driver’s licenses to the department that also handles motor vehicle registrations and license plates comes directly from a Texas Sunset Advisory Commission report to the current legislature. Birdwell is the chairman of the commission, which is responsible for assessing the performance of every agency and department in state government and can recommend an agency for reform or elimination.

The creation of the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2009 was itself the product of Sunset Advisory recommendations to make driver and vehicle registration and regulation more customer friendly.

“The department has leveraged technology, removed bureaucratic barriers and brought forward policies for the legislature’s consideration to improve our customers’ experience,” Shaivitz said.

Short of a transfer of services, Sunset Advisory research staff recommended closing the least efficient license centers, 87 of them, mostly in rural areas. However, having heard complaints from legislators representing those areas, the commission in August voted unanimously to keep those centers open.

The report goes on to outline a bleak future under the DPS. In spite of the more than $400 million in targeted funding, wait times have more than doubled in the last seven years at some centers, according to the report. Wait times for service via the call center have increased to more than 14 minutes on average. Call center staff fields just 20 percent of the more than 24,000 calls they get every day, the report said. The other 80 percent could not get through to a customer service operator.

DPS has been promising fixes for years. In June 2012, construction began on nine “mega centers” built in the state’s urban areas with $63 million. Despite promises of staffing to handle high-volume traffic, customers quickly began reporting that wait times at the mega centers exceeded other offices.

The legislature has allotted at least $100 million in each of the three sessions that followed the mega center gambit, according to DPS records (please see page 4). And after every session come news reports of  day-long horror stories at the DPS driver’s license centers like the ones in Garland and in Dallas and Beaumont.

As in the past, DPS has responded by asking for more money and promising to hire more people; nearly 1,000 new positions are requested in this year’s budget proposal. McCraw told the finance committee in January the driver’s license centers are never fully staffed.

The committee hearing revealed the growing frustration of state leaders. Committee member John Whitmire, D-Houston, told the audience that frustrated Houston residents were driving to suburban license centers only to create hours-long waits there.

“What are we doing?” Whitmire said. “We talk to the agency. I think most members have expressed their frustration. We’re talking three and four hours [waiting time] in our metropolitan areas. It’s the example I use when I speak to groups about state government not working.”

“When it’s this dysfunctional, it doesn’t look good on the whole state,” committee member Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said.

“We’re not getting better, we’re getting worse,” Whitmire said and then addressed McCraw directly. “I would personally just say, Steve, fix the damn thing. We need you to respond like your job depends on it.”

While responding to questions about voter fraud earlier in the week, Gov. Greg Abbott took the opportunity to blast the DPS for failing to correct the driver’s license situation.  “The way DPS has handled driver’s licenses in the state of Texas is despicable,” Abbott said, “and it has been non-responsive.”

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen thought the issue important enough to address it in his speech after being elected speaker on the first day of the session. He referred to the “frustrations people feel when they visit one of our state’s driver’s license offices.”

Birdwell’s bill is in the hands of a committee chaired by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, a fiscal conservative and member of the finance committee that lambasted McCraw and the DPS.

However, a key staffer for Campbell, asked this week about the senator’s opinion of the proposed move, said only, “I don’t think she really wants to speak to this just yet.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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