AUSTIN — With two weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers are still at odds about how to fix the vexing hourslong waits at the state’s driver’s license centers and how quickly they can provide relief.
The House wants to fast-track the relief plan by pushing through a transfer of the state’s driver license division from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Motor Vehicles by January 2021.
But senators say rushing the transfer would create chaos and they want to study the move before suggesting a remedy in the next legislative session. Stakeholders also question whether wait times would improve under the DMV’s oversight. In the meantime, lawmakers plan to add more employees to DPS to provide some short-term relief.
“You’ve got to have a plan of how you transition over, and study all the different pieces of it,” said Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who heads the Senate’s transportation committee. “If we try to do it in this two-year cycle, we think we’ll cause more harm than good and our thing is, ‘Don’t do harm.’”
Wait times at driver’s license centers
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For years, the state has suffered from inefficiencies and excruciatingly long wait times at its driver’s license centers. A WFAA-TV investigation found that seven of the 10 worst wait times for driver’s license centers in the state were in North Texas.
Last year, after another summer of hourslong lines for Texans who needed their licenses, a panel of lawmakers recommended moving the responsibility out of its current home in DPS and into the DMV.
The Texas Sunset Commission, which routinely reviews state agencies for efficiency, asked the Legislature to order a study on the pros and cons of moving the driver’s license program to the DMV, where many other states house the division. The study would be due September 2020 to give the next Legislature enough time to put a plan into action by the time its next session rolls around in 2021.
That proposal is part of Senate Bill 616, authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who chaired the bicameral Sunset Commission. It also includes a provision that if the study is not completed on time, the transfer would kick in automatically in September 2021.
But a proposal in the Texas House by Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, would speed up that transition. Under House Bill 11, the DPS director would start implementing a plan for the transition this September. The study would be due in March 2020 and the transfer would kick in on Jan. 1, 2021.
“We’ve got people standing in line every day in Texas to renew or apply for their driver’s license. We need to take action on things happening to the people of the state,” Thompson said. “It shouldn’t take someone three hours get these licenses.”
But some stakeholders have said the House’s expedited timeline may be untenable because the transfer of thousands of employees, as well as technology and contracts from one agency to another, will require extensive vetting that may not be achievable within two years.
The driver’s license division in DPS — the second biggest in the department — has around 2,230 employees. Transferring those workers to DMV would more than double the size of that agency, and questions about how to handle workers who have other responsibilities within DPS outside of driver’s licenses have yet to be resolved.
“The timeline for the transfer is still too brief,” said Michelle French, the Denton County Tax Assessor-Collector who also heads the state’s tax assessor-collectors association. “We’re hoping there will be enough time to do a study and be able to comprehensively analyze and study this issue to where there’s not a rush. We are a little bit concerned about that.”
French said tax assessor-collectors work frequently with the DMV on providing vehicle titles and registrations. If the driver’s license functions were transferred to the agency, she said, it is still unclear how that new task would impact the agency’s ability to perform its other functions.
“There’s got to be a lot more than just changing the name on the sign of the door from DPS to DMV,” she said. “It’s got to be a comprehensive plan, a well thought-out plan that everyone has taken into consideration. Our concern is that the state goes through all of this and it doesn’t succeed and it makes the problem even worse.”
Nichols, who sits on the Sunset Commission, shared those concerns. Thompson’s bill was sent to his Senate committee late last month, where it has not moved. There are too many moving pieces involved to rush the process, he said.
“We’re not going to do the straight transfer without figuring out a way to implement it,” he said. “I think that would be chaotic.”
But Thompson has not given up on his bill. He said it is a “work in progress” and still wanted to speak with Nichols about concerns with the expedited timeline.
If Thompson’s bill passed, it would provide $200 million to DMV to hire 962 more employees to handle its driver’s license duties when the program transferred to the agency in 2021. That would be on top of the $135 million the House has already budgeted for the driver’s license program in DPS in this year’s biennium.
“If the bill were to go through we could see some movement,” Thompson said. “Not tomorrow, but a whole lot faster if it passed.”
But it’s still unclear whether moving the driver’s license program out of DPS is the best option. The department’s leaders have repeatedly told lawmakers that they could improve their driver’s license tasks with an increase in funding, and have requested more money to better those operations in every legislative session since 2009. The state’s booming population has exacerbated the need for those additional resources, department officials said.
At a House committee, Steven P. Mach, the chairman of the Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, cautioned against a quick transfer that could bring new and unexpected challenges.
“I believe that provided with the proper resources the department is capable of living up to your expectations,” he said.
But lawmakers like Nichols are wary of throwing more money at the problem. He said lawmakers have provided more than $500 million in past years to improve the driver’s license division to no avail. While DPS does an outstanding job in law enforcement matters, he said, they do a terrible job in administering driver’s licenses.
“Giving them more [full-time employees], I don’t think is the solution,” he said. “Having somebody who administratively wants to fix this thing with some passion is what is needed.”