Presently, I am reading Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, written in 1913, five years after he left the White House. In it, he lucidly characterizes the tradition of the citizen-politician. “I did not then believe, and I do not now believe, that any man should ever attempt to make politics his only career. It is a dreadful misfortune for a man to grow to feel that his whole livelihood and whole happiness depend upon his staying in office,” he judged.
Roosevelt (TR) would have said this with conviction, observing first-hand the destructiveness of an ineffective bureaucracy on the body politic more than anyone of his time. In-between his time as a New York Assemblyman and New York City Police Commissioner, TR, during six years as Civil Service Reform Commissioner in Washington D.C, had worked to disband the “spoils” system that was then ubiquitous in American politics.
During the past few months, there has been a development out of Sacramento that I know would make old TR furious. DMV (Department of Motor Vehicle) lines have always been outrageously long, reflecting a notoriously inefficient agency. However, wait times have substantially increased due to the introduction of REAL ID and the subsequent rush of Californians to “upgrade” their IDs when their drivers’ licenses expire.
Commencing October 2020, REAL ID will be required to board U.S. domestic flights unless you bring a valid passport. Previously, regular drivers’ licenses could be renewed online, but in order to upgrade to the REAL ID (a choice most are making), you must now go to a DMV office in person.
So what did the State of California do to prepare for this transition, given that the REAL ID law was passed more than a decade ago? Last year, the state allocated a temporary $70 million budget increase to prepare for the increased workload. The budget bump would allow Saturday service in 60 key DMV offices and the hiring of hundreds of new DMV employees. Instead, DMV spent the money on overtime pay for current DMV employees and only opened on Saturdays at 40 locations when demand peaked in mid-June of this year. Twenty of the 40 offices were not even opened to Saturday appointments until July. Compounding scheduling problems, jumbled descriptions on the DMV website misled many customers into a false sense of what wait times actually were.
DMV director Jean Shiomoto offered scant consolation when questioned about the debacle during a hearing at the Capitol in the middle of August: “We recognize that we should not have reduced those hours or stopped those hours.” Such wasteful behavior should make the DMV a worthy candidate for an audit, right? Apparently not. Three State Senate Democrats, Ben Allen of Santa Monica, Jim Beall of San Jose and Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, abstained from voting in favor of an audit of the organization in mid-August during the hearings, while Governor Brown helped scuttle the audit from behind the scenes. Instead of an audit, the DMV received an additional $17 million in funding, ostensibly to reduce the current wait times, somewhat less than the $25 million that they requested initially.
During the past 30 days, the situation has only gotten worse. The Sacramento reported that nearly 34 outages in the DMV IT system have occurred since January and that the DMV had sent 23,000 erroneous voter registrations to the State Secretary. With political pressure mounting, Governor Brown authorized an audit of the DMV on Sep. 21, although it should be noted that the audit will be executed through the inherently partial executive branch’s Department of Finance, as opposed to the independent State Auditor, as had been originally called for in the legislature.
Stories like these are unfortunately all too common in California state politics, and merely reinforce a maxim that Reagan once quipped: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Interestingly, a state legislator or staffer may have heard the latter part of this quote sometime in the past year when their license expired and they got it renewed in what must be a record five minutes at a DMV office. How, you may ask? The people who inhabit the state capitol have always had many personal workarounds to their own laws (see the CEQA exception of the Capitol remodel), but one of the best must surely be the one recently revealed in the middle of this DMV debacle: There is a no-wait concierge DMV office in the capitol available to state officials and their staff. Outrageous? This is no joke, and I even went to see it in person this summer when I was working in the Capitol (though as a peon intern I wasn’t able to sample their services). Maybe it’s time Californians stopped speaking softly about corruption and started carrying bigger sticks to the DMV. They could maybe just use them to pole vault to the front of the line.