Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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As a former Sacramento Bee columnist and LA/NY Times reporter Dan Weintraub knows a thing or two about how California ticks. So it comes as no surprise that he’s come up with a great idea for Governor-elect Brown: fix California’s DMV.

Dan’s reasoning:

“Nearly everyone in the state age 16 or older has had to deal with the Department of Motor Vehicles at one time or another. And nearly every one of them comes away from the experience shaking their head, or in a rage. And then they start to think that all of state government must be as inefficient and bureaucratic as the one office they know the best.”

He adds:

“If Brown dragged the DMV into the 21st Century of customer service, a rather simple undertaking when you think about it, he could credibly ask Californians to support his efforts to reform the schools or protect the environment. Some of them might even be willing to cough up higher taxes if they believed the money wouldn’t be wasted.

And once Brown overhauled the Department of Motor Vehicles, he could move on to other parts of state government. He could blow up the boxes that Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to explode but never did. The Terminator couldn’t get past the public employee unions. But Brown, a lifelong Democrat in good standing, could.

He could fix the DMV. Then keep going.”

At this point, I’m going to commit a cardinal sin of bloggers: risk boring you with a personal anecdote. But it does affirm Weintraub’s theory about too many Californians having a DMV horror story to tell.

Here’s mine:

In mid-August, I bought a new car. Two days after said purchase, I decided that I wanted to upgrade the license plates. Not a vanity plate, mind you, but one of those nice memorial “special interest” plates. A $50 fee, but life is short . . .

 . . . And DMV lines are long, so I ordered the replacement plates on-line.

My credit card was accepted, the transaction occurred, and the DMV responded with a e-mail receipt informing me to expect the plates in 4-6 weeks.

The system was working.

Or so I assumed.

Fast-forward four weeks to late September. No plates. Week five: nothing. Week six: nada, zip.

The same for weeks seven and weeks eight and nine.

By week ten, with the election about to appear in the rear-view mirror and Thanksgiving looming on the horizon, I realized waiting was no longer an option. And so I called the “916” number that came with the print-out of my receipt. A recorded voice told me all DMV operators were busy, please hold the line.

Which I did . . . for 30 minutes.

I did get a human being on the line — a human being clearly lacking in humanity. She questioned if I had the right number (it’s what the form says, ma’am), whether I had indeed ordered special-interest plates (yes ma’am), and whether in fact I’d paid for the plates (I have both this printed form and a credit-card receipt, ma’am).

I wasn’t long for no-ma’am’s land. She directed me to another DMV number, this one dealing with vanity plates. That resulted in another 30 minutes of Muzak before an agent comes on the line . . . only to inform me that I had the wrong number; I needed to talk to a specialist in special-interest plates, not vanity plates.

Did I mention that I believe in gun control . . . for moments like this.

As it turns out, three times was the charm. My third DMV agent found my record, which had mysteriously disappeared (making me wonder my $50 had gone instead for a Furlough Friday happy hour at some T.G.I. Friday’s). Bonus added: the agent was actually apologetic and even called the next day to inform me that the plates were on the way. Indeed, they did arrive, two days after the round of phone-calls to Sacramento. But if I hadn’t called, I’d still be checking the mail every day like a clueless yutz.

I chose to share this anecdote because I think it gets to the heart of what ails government. Civil servants — people paid with my and others’ tax dollars — treated me condescendingly. The system didn’t work, not left on its own. It’s what earns bureaucracy a bad reputation, and prompts voters to distrust government.

Getting back to Dan Weintraub’s column, I think he’s on to something. Raising the vehicle-license fee (“car tax”) was the trigger for the 2003 recall election. During my years in Sacramento with the Wilson Administration, the angriest rally I witness was a group of citizens outraged by changes in the state’s smog-check law.

What does this say about California? Simple: mess with folks’ cars and expect to pay the price. But improve their motoring experience — beginning with a better DMV — and it might put the state on a road to bigger reforms.


Written by Bill Whalen

November 16, 2010 at 8:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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