The Sunset Advisory Commission unanimously voted on Wednesday to reject a proposal to close 87 Texas Department of Public Safety driver’s license offices.
DPS had recommended that the commission — which reviews state agency performance and recommends changes — vote to close the offices, most of which are in rural areas, citing office inefficiency.
Commission members — five state senators, five state representatives and two members of the public — voted 11-0 against shuttering doors. One of the members of the public on the commission, Ronald Steinhart, was present but did not vote.
Several members said some of the offices are the only ones in rural counties and serve low-income people who would unfairly shoulder the burden of having to drive long distances to a neighboring county's driver’s license office.
“If we are going to require the public to do something, the onus is on us to make sure that we provide the most efficient system for them, the public, in having to comply with our requirements,” said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood.
There are over 200 driver's license offices. In some cases, applicants can renew their licenses online or on the phone. But many Texas drivers are required to visit a driver's license office in person, including those with licenses that have been expired for more than two years and applicants over 79 or under 18.
DPS had proposed to close the offices after a Sunset Commission report from April stated that "DPS has not maximized its resources to adequately improve driver license customer service." The commission's report stated that issues in DPS driver's license offices, including long wait times and understaffed offices, should be addressed by the state agency. DPS defended its recommendations in a statement, saying it was responding to the Sunset report's findings that the "department has not implemented plans to close or consolidate driver license offices with low demand." DPS identified a list of potential offices for closure and submitted it for consideration by the Sunset Advisory Commission, the statement said.
But several state agencies and civil rights groups protested the proposal and urged commissioners to consider an alternative to closures.
“This decision has the potential to negatively impact low-income, elderly, voters of color, and other Texans who use these offices to obtain identification to vote in Texas under the state’s photo identification (photo ID) law and to register to vote, which is required by the National Voter Registration Act,” wrote the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Legal Defense Fund in a joint statement.
Eight state senators and 16 representatives also signed a bipartisan letter to the commission asking that the offices stay open.
“As a state we made a commitment to provide services to all citizens, even those in the most rural areas,” the July 17 letter stated. “Texas has an opportunity to reaffirm that no one citizen is more valued than another and we should not make one citizen whole at the expense of another one.”
The commission instead offered its own solution for the vulnerable 87 driver’s license offices and the overarching concern about DPS efficiency.
State Sens. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, recommended — and the commission approved — a third-party study of DPS and the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to determine which agency should be responsible for issuing driver’s licenses.
It is up to the Legislature to decide whether to approve funding for the study. Watson said a report about the study's findings would be due to state leadership by Sept. 1, 2020.
But that still leaves the question of what would happen to the DPS offices if the DMV takes over issuing driver’s licenses. Nearly all of the counties that have a DPS driver's license office on the recommended closure list also have a DMV registration and titling office.
“Regardless of which agency runs this program, the unanimous vote of the commission against closing the offices DPS identified sends a strong message that no offices should be closed if it will unfairly impact rural Texans,” Watson's office said in a statement emailed to the Tribune. “But the study may find, for example, that it's possible to expand our presence in rural Texas by utilizing local government offices.”
The DMV is open to the third-party study, agency spokesman Adam Shaivitz said.
“TxDMV will work diligently and cooperatively with DPS to ensure such an evaluation is provided should the Legislature move forward with the Sunset Advisory Commission recommendation for a study,” Shaivitz said in an emailed statement.
If the study is not approved by the Legislature, the commission still recommends that the driver's license program be transferred from DPS to the DMV by 2021, according to the measure approved Wednesday.