All of the plastic seats were filled at the Office of Motor Vehicles in Lafayette on a recent morning. Magan Ahlers occupied one of them.
She had been waiting for three hours to clear up a problem with her driver’s license.
“They don’t have enough windows open,” Ahlers said as she tried to entertain her 4-month-old daughter in the sterile setting. “I want to know why our OMV is so slow.”
Reena Flores, sitting next to Ahlers, broke in. “It’s ridiculous,” she said. “You don’t know much longer you’ll be here.”
If the Office of Motor Vehicles is the face of state government, it hasn’t been a pretty sight in recent years for most Louisiana residents.
[Editor's note: the Office of Motor Vehicles temporarily closed two offices in New Orleans and one in Slidell on Monday because of the novel coranavirus.]
Beginning in 2007, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature slashed spending and the number of workers at OMV as part of a wider conservative policy effort to reduce government spending.
Titling a vehicle, obtaining a driver’s license or reinstating one that had been canceled meant longer and longer waits.
John Bel Edwards was elected governor in 2015 after running against Jindal’s overall record and pledging to make state government better serve its residents.
Yet wait times have worsened under him at the state’s eight large offices, stretching from an average of 58 minutes in 2016 to 90 minutes last year before dropping to 70 minutes currently, according to the Office of Motor Vehicles.
“We’re working on it,” the governor said in a brief interview nearly two weeks ago.
State legislators, while saying they are fielding numerous complaints from constituents, don’t seem especially interested in addressing the problem during the current legislative session.
Wait times seem likely to worsen again this year — potentially significantly — because federal law is requiring Louisiana residents to use a new driver’s license known as Real ID if they want to use their license to board an airplane after Oct. 1.
Only about 15% of those with Louisiana driver’s license have the Real ID, according to the OMV. More people would likely have them by now, but Jindal vetoed legislation in 2014 that would have made them available sooner. He acted at the behest of religious conservatives, who feared that the new program would provide too much personal information to officials in Washington, D.C. At the time, Louisiana was only one of a handful of states that hadn’t adopted the federal guidelines required for the Real ID.
With Edwards as governor, the Legislature approved the Real ID licenses in 2016.
Since then, however, the agency’s obsolete computer system has worsened, hobbling the staff and adding to the havoc at offices.
Another Jindal-era change — consolidating the various state government agencies under a single technology platform — has contributed to frequent shutdowns in the operations at motor vehicle offices. With the change, a single communications outage now affects multiple agencies.
Another problem: Many of the front-line workers earn low salaries. Turnover is high.
Ironically, the OMV collects more than enough money to fund its operations. But for years, two-thirds of the money it takes in has gone to Louisiana State Police, which is flush with funding.
State Police received two big pay increases in 2015 that then-Superintendent Mike Edmonson said were needed to hire and retain well-trained people. That money came from fees collected by the Office of Motor Vehicles.
A State Police cadet now begins at $46,610 per year, while the 52 entry workers at the Office of Motor Vehicles earn $25,189 annually. Those 52 workers represent about 10% of the agency’s staff.
Since Jindal became governor in 2008, the budget for the Office of Motor Vehicles has risen by 13% while the State Police budget has increased by 71%.
“Funding critical law enforcement services is a priority for this administration, and we believe the citizens of our state not only expect it, they demand it,” J.B. Slaton, a State Police captain, said in a statement.
Nick Gautreaux, a former commissioner of OMV under Jindal, said State Police deserve sufficient funding but said his former agency needs to keep more of the fees it collects.
“The people using the services are paying for a service and unfortunately a small portion of the money is going to the service,” said Gautreaux. “It’s not good public policy.”
The agency’s problems go beyond a shortage of funding.
During a recent visit to the main office in New Orleans, on Veterans Boulevard, grime and black scuff marks defaced the floor throughout, the bathrooms had no soap dispensers and the men’s room had run out of toilet paper — a particular concern with the entry of the coronavirus to New Orleans.
“You can put toilet paper in the restrooms at 7:30 a.m. and by 8:30 a.m. it can be gone,” said Staci Hoyt, the agency’s deputy commissioner. “I don’t know why, but people steal it. And people rip the soap dispensers off the wall. I didn’t believe it when I first heard that.”
Hoyt said the agency contracts with a private company to clean the office daily.
“We ask them to scrape the floor and replace the tiles,” she said. “It’s not that the floors are dirty; it’s the black marks from moving the chairs.”
Hoyt blamed the outdated computer system for a problem at the main office in Baton Rouge on Independence Boulevard.
On a recent day, one waiting customer, Kelvin Carter, received the same number — E481 — as a woman, as he learned when the number was called. The clerk tended to the woman and told Carter that he had to wait until E481 rolled around again.
“It’s a bad experience,” said Carter, who had been waiting for 3½ hours on a recent day to reinstate his driver's license. “I just want to come in, pay and get out of here.”
Hoyt readily admits that the Office of Motor Vehicles is giving the public a bad impression of state government.
“They hate it. They absolutely hate it. But they hate it nationwide,” Hoyt said in an interview.
Edwards said he would like OMV to employ more technology to work faster while acknowledging that workers need higher pay for the agency to function more efficiently.
“We have too much turnover,” he said. “We have too many vacancies as well. You really can’t fix either of those things until you have more in the budget to spend on payroll.”
Under Jindal, the Office of Motor Vehicle’s budget dropped from $59 million in 2008 to $54 million when he left office in 2016, a reduction of $12 million, or 20%, when you factor in inflation. The number of staffers fell from 770 to 504, a drop of 35%.
Since Edwards became governor in 2016, state spending on OMV has increased from $52 million to $66 million, with most of the extra money allocated for improving the agency’s technology. The number of appropriated staff positions has risen from 504 to 539, at a cost of an additional $2 million in salaries per year.
In the budget that Edwards recently submitted to the Legislature, he is seeking only $2 million more for OMV. Asked why he isn’t requesting more, given the agency’s shortcomings, the governor said it’s early in the budget cycle.
Few of the people who go to a driver’s license office keep up with the intricacies of the state budget.
Teddy Yager, a plumber, was at the New Orleans office recently to correct a typo on his driver's license. Taking a cigarette break outside of the Veterans Boulevard office, he said he had been waiting 45 minutes.
“They told me it will be a two-hour wait,” he said. “It’s a drag.”
At the office in Westwego that same day, Danielle Fahrenholt had been waiting for two hours to obtain a Real ID driver's license.
“It sucks,” said Michael, her husband. “This is not how you want to spend your afternoon.”
The Harvey office several miles away was packed.
Casey Robichaux, a chef and mechanic, had been waiting there for four hours.
“I wish there was a way to expedite the process,” he said.
The inattention at the Office of Motor Vehicles branches has led state-authorized companies since 1993 to offer the same service at what is now an additional $18 per transaction. Obtaining a Real ID costs $35 at a private company rather than $17 at an agency office, for example.
“We’ll get to you faster than most of the state offices,” said Jodi Lansoga, office manager for The Notary Shoppe, which has five offices in metro New Orleans and one in Houma.
State Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, appears to be the only legislator who is offering a substantive measure to address the agency’s problems. His House Bill 605 would allow people to apply for a new driver's license by mail following an address change. (This reporter needed 2½ hours at the Veterans Boulevard office in January to make an address change.)
“It should create a greater level of convenience for our citizens,” Duplessis said.
Karen St. Germain heads the Office of Motor Vehicles for Edwards.
She came steeped in the Legislature, having served 14 years as a legislative aide and then 12 years as a Democratic state representative from Pierre Part, the last eight with Edwards. St. Germain chaired the House committee that oversaw the Office of Motor Vehicles and was well-liked by her colleagues, but she had little management experience. She earns $125,000 per year in the job.
The agency is heading in the right direction, St. Germain said. She raised the entry wage from $9.54 per hour to $12.11 per hour, and the governor and the Legislature added the 35 extra positions last year.
“This man,” she said, referring to Edwards, “has done more for OMV because he listens to us.” The state’s budget problems, inherited from Jindal, have limited the governor’s ability to increase funding further, she said.
Hoyt traces many of the agency’s problems to a 45-year-old computer system that still runs on the 1970s-era COBOL operating language and requires staffers to memorize too much information instead of using the computer to quickly find things they need.
The Jindal administration spent $22 million to modernize the computer system but pulled the plug on the effort when it became clear that no solution was in sight.
The Office of Motor Vehicles now is working with the state’s Office of Technology Services to develop the new system in-house. Hoyt said it is in the second year of a five-year, $25 million effort.
“We want a customer-centric system,” said Hoyt. “I want to pull up your name and be able to tell you all the services that you need at motor vehicles. I envision TurboTax for motor vehicles.”