Gov. Jerry Brown hit a road bump and maneuvered out of a perilous jam en route to retirement.
Brown’s gubernatorial days are numbered — he’ll be termed-out at year’s end — but he’s hardly a lame duck. At least not yet. He still has plenty of political muscle in the Capitol.
That’s because in September he’ll be deciding the fate of hundreds of bills passed by the Legislature before it adjourns in two weeks.
So when the governor told three Democratic senators he really didn’t want them to authorize an independent audit of his broken Department of Motor Vehicles, and promised to fix the agency himself, the politicians got the message.
“Go along to get along,” as the legendary U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn often advised.
“The governor called me himself to give his personal commitment to fixing the problem,” Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) told me.
Allen was one of three Democratic senators on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee who blocked an independent probe of the DMV. The other two were Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).
The state auditor can’t audit anything unless the Legislature authorizes it.
An audit would require the DMV to spend money and staff time responding to investigators. Those resources should be devoted to improving customer service, Allen argued.
An audit would also take months to complete, he contended. “Let’s fix the problem and do it right now.”
OK, that’s valid reasoning. There are too many state studies anyway. Reports are issued, tossed on shelves and ignored. Better to just dive into the repair job.
But let’s be honest: Surely that’s not Brown’s principal reason for opposing a high-profile audit of the DMV. About the last thing the governor wants is a scathing report on his DMV stewardship by respected state Auditor Elaine Howle just as he’s leaving office.
Pushing for the audit was Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno. He maintains that Brown could proceed with overhauling the DMV and Howle could audit its innards at the same time. And, he adds, the audit wouldn’t have to last several months. Most of it could be completed in two or three.
“It doesn’t have to be either/or,” he says. “It can be both.”
Patterson, a former Fresno mayor, began agitating to shake up the DMV in spring, when few outside the Capitol were listening. Wait times at DMV offices had billowed to six hours or more in many locations, an increase of 50% or higher in the last year.
Then some newspapers and TV news shows — those “enemies of the people” spewing “fake news,” to quote the president — started shining a light on frustrated citizens lined up for hours outside DMV offices. That made it a hot issue the politicians couldn’t ignore.
The DMV gave legitimate-sounding reasons for the long lines.
Motorists seeking the federal government’s required Real ID, a combination driver license and identification card, were swamping field offices. The cards take extra time to process. Starting in October 2020, a Real ID or passport will be needed to board a commercial airplane or visit a federal facility.
And the DMV’s computer system is a fragile antique that sometimes collapses and badly needs to be replaced.
Also, the DMV has been tasked by the Legislature with automatically registering voters, a relatively new burden.
But let’s face it: Brown is the guy ultimately responsible. The DMV deteriorated on his watch. Someone wasn’t paying enough attention. There were higher priorities. And Brown isn’t much of a multi-tasker.
To his credit, however, the governor finally did catch on to the DMV’s snafus and last year began trying to mend them.
At Brown’s request, the Legislature has appropriated nearly $64 million to hire 780 new DMV staffers. In all, the DMV has a $1.2-billion budget and 8,300 workers.
The state Transportation Agency, which oversees the DMV, recently ordered some employee shuffling. It temporarily moved 420 staffers from DMV headquarters, some California Highway Patrol offices and other state entities to DMV field offices.
The DMV also increased Saturday hours at 60 field offices. It’s opening some of them an hour earlier on weekdays. And it will be mailing driver’s license and vehicle registration renewal notices one month earlier than in the past to give motorists more time to deal with the harried DMV.
“We’re throwing everything at this right now,” says Brian Annis, secretary of the Transportation Agency. “The time it’s taking at DMV field offices is clearly unacceptable.”
Let’s hope there’ll also be some gentle kicks in the rear. Walk into a DMV office and it seems like everything is happening in slow motion. If that’s the fault of snail-moving computers, junk them. Significantly upgrade or go back to paper.
“I’m not poking a finger at people behind the counter,” Patterson says. “Can you imagine being a DMV worker and having to face people who have waited eight hours?”
Patterson, who isn’t termed out until 2024, says that if Brown doesn’t shorten the DMV lines, he’ll be back seeking an audit next year.