There’s clear logic in a Texas Sunset Advisory Commission recommendation to move responsibility for issuing driver licenses and state identification cards from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
It’s equally clear, however, that neither department will be able to provide good service to the driving public unless the Texas Legislature is willing to invest in the facilities, technology and people required to do that.
Also clear is that the level of service people are getting from their government in this case has fallen below what they should reasonably expect and deserve to receive.
At issue, as the newspaper reported Friday, is that service has gotten to be so slow, and the lines so long at DPS license offices in the Houston metro area, that people are willing, compelled perhaps, to drive a long way on the off chance of having to spend a little less of their lives standing in line.
Apparently, word got out that Galveston’s small office was the place to go if you didn’t want to wait for a very long time. The editors got interested in this odd issue when a friend called one day to say he was headed down from the Spring Branch area of west Houston to the Galveston driver license office. That’s a trip of about 70 miles one way.
Meanwhile, officials at the Galveston Island Humane Society complained the spillover crowd from the driver license office next door was filling up the parking lot at their shelter. They worried people wanting to adopt dogs and cats might be turned away, which is a reasonable concern.
The humane society has tried to be neighborly, not wanting to compound people’s misery by having their cars towed away while they waited in line. They have gone above and beyond with that, and should now just call the tow trucks. The DPS could attempt being neighborly too and perhaps warn people not use the lot next door or even station a trooper there to ensure they don’t.
A broader solution might very well be to relieve the DPS of this burden. The state requires a whole lot of this department. It’s responsible for about 40 broad tasks, including patrolling the highways, fighting organized crime, cyber-crime and terrorism, inspecting commercial vehicles, operating forensic laboratories and managing a vast repository of criminal records, according to its Legislative Appropriation Requests.
Administrators in those requests have informed lawmakers the resources they have dedicated to issuing driver licenses are not adequate to keep up with increasing demand, driven in part by the simple fact the state’s population is growing by about 2 percent a year.
And lawmakers have increased some funding and dedicated some to improving the driver license system. The Sunset Commission noted in its report that the department had diverted some of the improvement money to its law enforcement operations.
It’s not hard to understand those decisions. Do you worry most about how quickly your investigators are able to respond to tips about terrorism, how quickly crime scene evidence moves through your labs or how long a person might have to stand in line every few years to get a picture taken?
The Department of Motor Vehicles wouldn’t have those same naturally lopsided priorities, but it would need adequate funding or it also would fail, obviously.
Less obvious is where to focus those dollars. The DPS had hoped technology would help it keep ahead of demand growth and even planned to shut down facilities and move more of its business to the internet. The Sunset Commission determined that strategy had failed because the DPS internet option is not user-friendly.
No matter who ends up with the responsibility, the legislature should put money into improving the online option, because Texas, like everywhere else, is full of people who’d be perfectly happy never setting foot in a state office ever again.
• Michael A. Smith