Texas Tribune Blue Government News
State lawmakers are poised to spend more than $200 million to decrease Texans’ wait times for driver’s licenses. The lion’s share of the money, $141.5 million, will be used to hire another 762 employees for the program. Legislators also plan to give raises to current driver’s license specialists and open new driver’s license offices in Angleton, outside of Houston, and Denton, north of Dallas and Fort Worth.
The legislature’s reforms come after spikes in wait times at driver’s license offices last summer. Near Dallas, some people waited up to eight hours, with part of their time spent in 100-degree Texas heat. Election anxieties have upped the ante for lawmakers, who say many voters consider this issue their most pressing concern.
“If someone had the resources and ran against you on this issue?” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “You would get yourself in political liability over this issue alone.”
A committee comprised of lawmakers from the House and Senate approved the plan, which was released Saturday as part of the state’s proposed two-year budget. Both the House and Senate have to sign off on the budget before the legislative session ends Monday.
Still, lawmakers worry that the agency currently in charge of the driver’s licenses, the Department of Public Safety, has mismanaged public money in recent years. Wait times at driver’s license offices have only worsened, even as the legislature has funneled more than $300 million into the program since the 2012 budget year. DPS aims to process driver’s license and ID applications in 45 minutes, but the agency only hit that target 30 percent of the time last year — down from 40 percent in past years.
“You can’t just throw money at something and fix it.” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, at a January hearing.
So, budget writers appropriated another $1 million to study the pros and cons of transferring the program to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“DPS has far too many tier-one tasks hanging on its Christmas tree,” state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said in a January committee hearing. “And the driver’s license function is an ornament best given to DMV because it more lines up with the administrative function of DMV than a law enforcement function of DPS.”
In a 2018 report, the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative group that evaluates state agencies said DPS has a history of transferring money from of the driver’s license program to fund other duties. And in 2017, DPS chose not to spend $8 million that the legislature allocated for the program.
The agency argued that unspent money isn’t unusual because of the high turnover rate for their staffers, and the raises proposed in the 2020-2021 budget will help with employee retention.
According to the commission, DPS also didn’t invest in important technology, like customer management software for phone calls. And 381 budgeted positions for the driver’s license program are currently unfilled.
The House this year agreed to accelerate the program’s transfer to DMV with House Bill 11, by State Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, so DPS would start the transition process in September. But the Senate Transportation committee never gave the bill a hearing. Some senators worried that rushing the process would create chaos. They argued that the DMV is much smaller than DPS and already has frequent technology problems.
“You move [the driver’s license program] to DMV with all the issues they currently have, and you’re going to have a cluster,” said Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, during a January committee hearing.