By Michael Gardner
6:37 p.m.Jan. 14, 2014
U-T San Diego

With the bitter battles over policy behind them, state lawmakers must now confront the thorny issue of how to pay for a new program that will soon allow those here illegally to obtain drivers licenses starting next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown has ignited the debate, setting aside $64.7 million for the program in his proposed 2014-15 budget — enough to hire more than 800 temporary workers to help process an expected surge in applications for licenses.

Brown’s budget for the Department of Motor Vehicles is drawing fire for not recouping all of the costs from unauthorized immigrants, who will pay the same $33 fee as all new drivers do and not an additional surcharge.

“It’s unbelievable that they’re doing this,” said Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee. “My understanding is the applicant fee is supposed to pay for this.”

Jones and some other Republicans say they will call on Brown and the DMV to consider imposing higher fees when the final budget is developed later this year.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Watsonville Democrat who carried the legislation, said the DMV is continuing to finalize the program and costs. A surcharge as high as $100 was discussed during budget hearings last year. The final figure may be determined by the DMV after meeting with constituency groups through the spring, Alejo said.

“A lot of applicants would be willing to pay more, but we want to keep the cost as reasonable as possible ” Alejo said. “The language is flexible.”

A surcharge is permitted, but not required, by the new law enacted by Assembly Bill 60. It reads: “(DMV) may assess an additional fee to applicants applying under the provisions of this act in an amount sufficient to offset the reasonable costs of implementing the provisions of the act.”

The DMV estimates the program will require 822 temporary workers from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2015; 811 workers in 2015-16; and 215 in 2016-17.

Jones questioned the proposed hiring spree. The DMV is pushing Californians to do more business online, greatly reducing demand at field offices. That should free up existing employees to handle most, if not all, of the in-person crunch, he said.

“Why can’t they take up some of the slack?” Jones said.

Jones predicted that the new temporary workers will soon be permanent, growing government.

A 16-page budget memo offers some insights into why the DMV needs to expand its payroll.

Without re-enforcements, the influx of new applications could overwhelm the entire system and result in lengthy waits for appointments for everyone, the DMV says.

“The increased customer flow … will create significant backlogs and safety concerns if additional resources are not employed by the department,” the DMV said.

Statewide, the DMV has 9,000 employees and an overall budget of slightly more than $1 billion. Of that, $337.77 million is budgeted for the division that handles drivers licenses and state identification cards. There are 2,826 employees assigned to those duties.

DMV documents reveal that it will cost the state $141.8 million through 2017 to issue licenses to an estimated 1.4 million applicants. At $33, the state will recoup $46.2 million of its costs during that span.

The $33 would bring in an estimated $17.8 million of the nearly $65 million costs to the state through the initial launch up until June 30, 2015. A $100 surcharge would cover nearly $54 million based on an anticipated 538,947 applications over those six months.

The 822 new workers will focus on applications from unauthorized immigrants, but they will also help with other duties. If they just processed applications from those here illegally, the 822 workers would be responsible for about five walk-ins a day over the initial six months — not counting applicants who have to make repeat visits.

Without help, the existing workforce of 2,826 already assigned to the licensing division would have to process on average about two new walk-in applications a day during those first six months.

The DMV suggests those assumptions could be misleading. For example, many applicants have to return several times. The duties are time-consuming, from grading written tests to taking fingerprints to giving driving exams on the road. Also, the number of current licensing division employees is exaggerated, the DMV says, because some are based in the Sacramento headquarters and not in the field, so fewer existing workers would be available.

The DMV breaks down the $67.4 million budget in two categories: $42.8 million for temporary new employees and $24.6 million for satellite offices in five locations, one of which would be in San Diego County. The offices may even take Saturday appointments.

The DMV estimates that the proposed San Diego/San Marcos field office would cost an estimated $366,349 for the first eight months for rent, security, utilities and other expenses.

The report does not identify how many workers would staff the office, nor their salaries. However, some monthly salaries by job classification are provided: up to $7,177 for a top manager; $3,973 for the person giving the driving test, and $3,828 for a cashier.

The DMV’s applications estimate is based on extrapolations from other states’ data that have authorized licenses. DMV estimates 538,947 in the first six months of 2015; 709,141 in 2015-16 and 170,194 in 2016-17.

Price tag aside, the policy carried out by the law remains hotly disputed.

Jones and lawmakers of a like mind have softened their approach to immigrant issues as Congress remains stalemated over broad reforms. But critics have long contended California should not reward lawbreakers with the privilege of driving. They are also concerned about security risks by providing a widely accepted form of identification.

“This legislation is a piecemeal approach by California when Congress should be leading the way on this federal issue,” Jones said about the license bill.

Alejo said applicants must play by all the rules — and then some.

“AB 60 does not give drivers licenses to immigrants. It gives them the opportunity to earn it,” he said. “They have to fulfill all the traditional requirements just like everyone else. In the end it’s going to make the roads safer by passing the exam and getting insurance.”

The new law proposes wording to be stamped on the back, such as: “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility or employment, voter registration or public benefits.”

Also, to distinguish the document from routine licenses, the abbreviation “DP” to designate that it is for the driving privilege only would be in front of the actual license number instead of the “DL” abbreviation for most driver’s licenses.

Applicants will be required to provide several different ways to prove identity — such as an original birth certificate or a valid passport — and residency — a utility bill, lease or other documentation.

The license design also must be approved by federal officials under the Real ID Act enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.