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California’s DMV is broken — and legislators are playing politics instead of fixing it

California’s DMV is broken — and legislators are playing politics instead of fixing it
Hundreds of people stand in line at the DMV office in Stanton, Calif., in 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

Something is terribly wrong at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. While it’s never been a joy to deal with this particular bureaucracy, things have gone from consistently unpleasant to hellish in the last few months.

Customer lines are snaking out the doors of DMV field offices, down the street and around the block. People are forced to wait several hours for service at some offices — even those who were able to obtain appointments. And the appointment system itself is a wreck: If you ask for one today, you will probably be offered a date a couple of months from now.

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DMV officials blame the problem on the crush of people seeking licenses that are compliant with the federal “Real ID” law. That law, passed by Congress in 2005, set new, higher standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification; after October 2020, people will need either a U.S. passport or a Real ID to board domestic flights or gain access to certain federal buildings. As a result of the new law, there are now more people seeking licenses — and the processing time for each applicant is longer as well.

Real ID might have exacerbated wait times, but anyone who has had to deal with the DMV knows that it is a backward agency in dire need of modernization.


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But the DMV has known this was coming for 13 years — and was allocated $70 million extra last year to get ready. So what’s the sudden crisis? That’s a question that deserves better answers than agency director Jean Shiomoto provided in legislative hearings this week. There are others as well: Why, for instance, did she wait until she was called on the carpet by the Legislature to go into crisis mode? The situation has been bad since at least January. When can we expect wait lines to be brought under one hour? Why is the DMV stuck in the 20th century, with decades-old technology? What will it take to make renewing a driver’s license or registering a vehicle, if not a pleasant experience, at least not a terribly painful one?

You might think that the crisis at the DMV would be a nonpartisan issue. It’s driving people nuts in every corner of the state, regardless of their political affiliation. You also might think heads would be rolling about now, this close to election day, especially after the recent news that a DMV employee had been sleeping on the job for three years. You’d also think there would be a unified call by Republicans and Democrats for a top-to-bottom examination of DMV practices.

Instead, there’s a political spat over whether it makes sense to ask the state auditor to examine wait times at the DMV.

It’s hard to believe that an audit would be controversial, yet three Democratic senators — Sens. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) — withheld their votes during a Joint Legislative Audit Committee hearing Wednesday, effectively killing the proposal. Why would they refuse such a sensible request? No doubt because the request came from Republican legislators.

State Auditor Elaine Howle isn’t allowed to self-initiate audits. Any audit other than those required by state law must be approved by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. That means unless she gets different orders from the Legislature, this mess will go unexamined.

Spending more money to deal with the immediate need — in this case, state lawmakers plan to give millions more dollars for more staff to process applicants — is reasonable. What’s not reasonable is to refuse to examine the foundational issues that led to this problem. Real ID might have exacerbated wait times, but anyone who has had to deal with the DMV knows that it is a backward agency in dire need of modernization.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom called the wait times a disgrace Wednesday in a meeting with The Times’ editorial board, adding that the next governor deserves to be recalled if he doesn’t fix the DMV. Newsom, who is a candidate for that job himself, is right that it will be the job of the governor, since it seems the Legislature isn’t up to the task.

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