PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Public Safety is making quick changes after the agency decided to cut office hours at 11 driver’s license offices across the state, including the mega center in Pflugerville, due to budget cuts. Initially, the agency said it was a “business decision and cost control measure” to limit the hours.
Two weeks ago, the agency cut the hours and discarded plans to hire 108 full-time employees. Public officials of both parties immediately jumped into action when they learned constituents had to endure longer wait times and would have to expect less service. In the wake of a 200-person line outside a Houston drivers license center, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted the issue would be addressed.
Tuesday afternoon, the media team at DPS released a statement announcing the reversal of the cuts, writing, “The decision to resume extended hours came after discussion with state leaders and state legislators. The Driver License Division will explore other options and efficiencies in order to keep the extended-hour schedule in place.”
Central Texas lawmakers sent letters to DPS Director Steve McCraw asking in short, why didn’t he tell them about these changes. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, wrote, “As lawmakers received your message days after we gaveled out on Sine Die, there was no opportunity for us to respond to this change or take corrective action. This is particularly troubling, as your agency’s Legislative Appropriations Request did not indicate this action was anticipated as a result of the planned 4 percent budget cuts.”
Director McCraw responded disputing the idea he never told lawmakers. “The department’s proposed cuts for the 4 percent reduction were submitted to the LBB (legislative budget board) in September 2016 and briefed to Legislative members on several occasions during the 95th Regular Session,” he wrote, “as well as provided to members and legislative staff in written correspondence over half a dozen times.”
State agencies were directed to cut four percent before the session started. DPS requested drivers license services be exempt from that four percent cut in their legislative budget request. But the issue wasn’t brought up to lawmakers until a May 31 email—when lawmakers had already left town.
The limited hours were rolled out on June 5, without a significant effort to notify the public. A notice was sent to KXAN to let the public know about the June 5 change on June 13. The agency originally said the business decision to shorten the office hours was to reduce overtime costs and help with employee retention.
Attention on the Border
While DPS was worried about saving money at driver’s license offices, the agency asked for $1 billion during this year’s legislative session to support its security operations along the border. The budget ended up funding the border security with $800 million.
Like a lot of Texans, Dora Fobbs says the lines are already too long at the DPS driver’s license centers. She waited an hour and a half Tuesday to get her niece an identification card.
“It’s just for an ID, it’s not even for a driver’s license or anything serious. But, yeah, I think they need to have more staff,” said Fobbs.
Williamson County Justice of the Peace Judge Bill Gravell prides his office on short lines and great customer service.
“Our primary role is customer service. It’s to meet the demand of the people,” said Gravell.
He joins a chorus of bipartisan public officials who have voiced concern and sent letters to McCraw, upset at how DPS dedicated time to ask for $800 million for border security but didn’t ask for a few million dollars to keep the office hours.
“The only clear picture that we had was that they wanted to buy more balloons, more speedboats, and put more people on the border,” said Gravell, who regularly visits the capitol during the session to testify and give input and feedback to state lawmakers.
As for where the $8 million will come from to pay for the extended office hours, DPS has strict rules. The money will not come from the border security mission.
“The department has restrictions on moving funding from one budget strategy to another. DPS is also expressly prohibited by legislative action from moving funding from certain areas, such as border security. The same prohibition also applies to crime lab and driver license for the upcoming biennium,” responded Tom Vinger, a DPS spokesperson.
KXAN followed up to find out where the agency will get the money, we’re still waiting for a response.
State Rep.Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, points to another option. HB 3050 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, would allow Texas to contract with cities across the state to issue driver licenses and other materials commonly found at these mega centers.
Rep. Wilson says this would, “help significantly reduce some of the extra strain on the driver license department within DPS. House Bill 3050 is currently on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature.”
DPS encourages people who need to visit the center to use their website to get in line before they even leave the house. When KXAN visited the Mega Center in Pflugerville last summer, there was already a line out the door before the office opened at 7:30 a.m.