One topic dominated last week’s Texas Senate Finance Committee hearings: Lawmakers didn’t disguise concern over the complaints they hear budget cycle after budget cycle from angry constituents who fritter away their lives at Texas Department of Public Safety driver license offices, waiting for some clerk in a half-staffed office to help them to obtain or renew a driver’s license.
“I’m here to tell you, we need you to respond like your job really depended on it,” Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, told DPS director Steven McCraw at one point. “And as a buddy of yours, I cannot be more clear: We cannot continue to meet like this.”
Few of us have a better chance to gauge state government in action than when trying to get business done at a DPS driver license office. When I dropped by the local office last Monday, a polite and informative official at the front door was telling folks the wait time was 45 minutes to an hour. The waiting area was full. Yet the wait time DPS clerks statewide were to meet starting in 2015 was within 45 minutes. Conclusion: DPS officials are clearly better at enforcing laws than helping Texans abide by them.
“It is not only bad, it has gotten worse,” charged Sen. Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican. “This was an issue we brought up last session, how bad it was. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars improving the actual driver license offices, setting up better stations. Got lots of stations. But you go in and there might be 10 stations but with only one or two people. The number of calls not being returned has gone way up. I think the wait times have gone way up.”
McCraw offered some worthy guideposts for bolstering service — far better than the numbskull staff idea pitched last summer about closing down 87 driver license offices, primarily in rural areas. For starters: Extend license renewal periods from six to eight years, cutting down visits. Figuring in the fact a Texas driver must show up in person to renew his or her license every other time, this would mean only one visit to the driver license station every 16 years rather than every 12.
The DPS director also said the job of verifying qualifications is more demanding and the pay less than attractive given all the responsibilities nowadays: “You have to recognize the job has changed since the Real ID Act of 2005 [a federal act heightening standards for all state driver licenses by 2020 as a matter of national security]. It’s complicated verification-of-identity processes along with skills and knowledge. You have to be able to address that. At the same time, our frontline people are doing the same thing we used to pay troopers to do in terms of skill sets. So you can’t pay them $26,000 a year and expect to be fully staffed.”
Efforts percolating in the Texas House would invest more than $200 million in transferring driver license offices from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Motor Vehicles and adding 962 employees so constituents don’t find empty windows where clerks ought to be. Senators, some of whom are considering the same shift in administrative agencies, meanwhile heard a request for $420 million beyond current program costs to better staff driver license offices and increase the number of locations to meet an estimated 27 percent increase in population over the next 11 years. One bitter irony McCraw noted: An estimated 53 percent of folks who visit driver license offices could have handled their business by phone or online. That suggests more clarity is needed on state DPS websites. A far better-informed driving public might also help.