Softening on Watson’s pitch


Michael Watson, Mississippi’s new secretary of state, has not yet convinced us that giving his agency responsibility for issuing and renewing driver’s licenses is prudent.

We’re becoming more open, however, to hearing Watson out on what was a significant plank of his successful campaign last year for the office.

In a guest column published this past weekend in the Clarion Ledger, Watson laid out his case.

He says — correctly so — that motorists are fed up with the slow service from the Department of Motor Vehicles, a branch of the Department of Public Safety. He contends that if the secretary of state were to take over the job, this heavily clerical task would go more smoothly, and the Department of Public Safety could better focus on its core task of law enforcement.

“What would be different for our citizens by transferring driver’s license services from one state agency to another?” Watson writes. “We can find efficiencies, increase the use of technology, promote more online renewals, hire customer-focused managers at each office, and also outsource the written and driving tests.”

Of course, all of this could be accomplished as well in the current setup if those who run the DMV were so inclined. For example, there is no reason why written and driving tests can only be administered by DMV employees. Other states certify teachers of driver’s education at the high schools to give these exams.

Watson’s best argument, perhaps, for moving driver’s licensing to the secretary of state is that the process, for the past quarter-century, is no longer just about certifying that a person can safely and legally operate an automobile. It’s become also an avenue for encouraging and facilitating voter registration. Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more commonly known as the “motor-voter law,” states are required to offer voter registration opportunities at their motor vehicle agencies. Registering voters is a natural fit for the secretary of state, Mississippi’s chief elections officer.

The question Watson doesn’t answer, though, is how much his proposed change would cost, and how that cost compares with what the DMV currently spends.

Even if the state lets driver’s education instructors handle some of the testing, and even if the state increases the amount of renewals handled online, there still will have to be physical offices established and employees to man them in most, if not all, of Mississippi’s 82 counties.

Will these infrastructure and labor costs be larger than what DMV is spending? If not, show the math. If so, spell out how much the fee for a driver’s license would have to increase to cover the additional expenditures.

Watson will have to produce some hard numbers before he wins us over.

But we’re listening.