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Colin Campbell: Insane DMV wait times

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Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

IN LINE AT THE CLAYTON DMV — If you haven’t been to the DMV lately, prepare to be unpleasantly surprised. Everyone’s favorite state agency has upped its game and now offers an even more hellish experience.

I’m currently writing this column while sitting cross-legged on the floor at a DMV office. State leaders have been urging people to get their REAL ID well in advance of the October 2020 deadline when it’ll be required for air travel, so I’m trying to get mine.

I’ve been told to expect a three-hour wait before employees can scan my four required identification documents and issue the ID. I ventured out to the Clayton location because it’s one of the DMV’s least busy offices. Other DMV customers have been forced to wait in long lines outside in the blazing August heat for nearly an entire day, according to Twitter posts. I basically won the lottery by getting an indoor spot on the floor.

DMV officials are blaming the federal REAL ID requirement for the insane lines and waits, coupled with the usual summer traffic from teenagers looking to get their driver’s license before school starts.

There’s no excuse for this. State officials have known about the REAL ID deadline for years, and the crowds are guaranteed to get worse as we get closer to October 2020. DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup held a news conference last week to address the problems, but he offered few solutions.

“Make the appointment so you don’t have to stand in line,” he said. But some customers are being told the earliest available appointments are in December, so that won’t help if your license expires now. Jessup also suggests going to a DMV location well outside the busy urban areas like Raleigh and Charlotte — which won’t help people who can’t afford to take off work and burn a tank of gas venturing out to the hinterlands.

DMV didn’t get much extra funding in this year’s budget. Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration oversees the agency (I’m sitting under a framed photo of Cooper right now) but didn’t make a strong push for more staffing or locations in his budget proposal. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, campaigned on a pledge to “fix DMV,” and was able to make some minor improvements. But Cooper prefers to focus his attention on jobs and education initiatives, and you rarely hear him mention DMV lines.

The DMV might not be the most sexy issue for politicians, but it’s a critical one. Having a valid driver’s license is a necessity for most of us. And with state leaders seeking to reinstate a voter ID requirement, folks who don’t drive could soon be joining the long lines. Regardless of whether you support voter ID, making people stand in line all day in order to vote will ultimately disenfranchise some people.

Jessup says he’ll ask the legislature for more funding next year, but that means the agency likely wouldn’t start adding staff and locations until the fall of 2019.

DMV’s problems require more urgency. But there’s hope: Cooper has the power to call the legislature into session, and lawmakers have shown there’s no crisis too small for a special session. They recently returned to Raleigh simply to tweak the wording on election ballots.

Legislators found about $100 million in this year’s budget to give to charities and pet projects in their districts, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find money to hire temporary staffers, extend hours and lease space for new DMV offices — at least through the 2020 REAL ID deadline.

DMV leaders could also take more steps to fill 80 vacant positions, as well as help us make informed decisions by posting updated wait times for each location — so we’ll know the best time and least busy locations to visit.

As for me, I’ve finished writing this and I’m still sitting on the DMV’s floor. The friendly but frazzled staff here can’t promise me that my number will get called before the office closes at 5 p.m. It’s almost certain that some of us floor-sitters will be back another day to play the waiting game.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com

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