The Line at the DMV

Two previous posts explored the outline of the California state budget, and the process by which the budget is developed and passed into law. But these overviews don’t directly touch most Californians in their daily lives. To begin to connect the budget and the budget process with the concerns of regular Californians let’s look at one department that almost every adult in California encounters regularly: the dreaded Department of Motor Vehicles, commonly known as the DMV.
According to the DMV website, the department:

…registers vehicles in California and licenses their drivers. This amounts to about 33 million vehicles registered and approximately 23 million licensed drivers.
Other major DMV functions include:

  • Recording ownership (certificate of title) of the vehicles DMV registers
  • Maintaining driving records (accidents and convictions) of licensed drivers
  • Issuing identification cards for individuals
  • Registering and recording ownership of vessels
  • Licensing and regulating driving and traffic violator schools and their instructors
  • Licensing and regulating vehicle manufacturers, transporters, dealers, distributors, vehicle salespeople, and dismantlers
  • Administering the Financial Responsibility Law
  • Investigating consumer complaints
  • Maintaining records in accordance with the law
  • Collects approximately $6.5 billion in revenues annually

That’s a lot. To accomplish this for the state’s population of 36,457,549 (2006 census bureau estimate), with 23,270,087 licensed drivers and 4,248,807 ID cardholders (2006) The total budget is $903 million (proposed, 2007-2008) with 8,280 employees.
While this sounds like a lot of money and people, this amounts to only approx. $33 and only .0003 employees per license/ ID card. How much service can you expect from three ten-thousandths of an employee?
The DMV is a symbol of state government to most people — and not often a positive one. Few people have good things to say about the DMV, and by and large this boils down to the need to show up at the office and stand in a line, fill out forms, and regularly pay fees.
Few people understand that one of the reasons for the lines is that the DMV just doesn’t have enough people working there – just three ten-thousandths of a person for each license or ID cardholder. When 27.5 million people are demanding services from 8,280 employees, lines can indeed get long.
But even under these constraints, they find ways to manage as well as they have. In fact, according to the Governor’s Budget Document, “Over the past two years, the DMV has reduced field office wait times in the largest offices from nearly one hour to 20 minutes and reduced customer telephone wait times by more than 50 percent.” These lines were decreased because the Governor committed to additional funding (demonstrating the direct relationship between funding and good service to the public.)
We frequently hear that government spending must be cut, but few places bring home the impact of government spending cuts as directly as the experience of a visit to the DMV. In our example the DMV is a symbol of the state government, and the experience of the DMV is the experience of underfunded schools, roads that need maintenance and services that are approaching a breaking point. Spending can only be cut so far.
Next this series will examine how California finances itself.