Speaker attends luncheon to hear secretary of state tout driver’s license bureau plan he opposes

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Then-candidate Michael Watson at a forum sponsored by MSU’s Stennis Institute of Government Capitol press corps October, 2019.

Secretary of State Michael Watson touted his plan Monday to have his agency take over the administering of the renewal of driver’s licenses as a powerful politician opposed to that proposal – House Speaker Philip Gunn – sat in the audience listening.

Gunn, who has gone on record as being opposed to transferring the duties of license renewal from the Department of Public Safety to the Secretary of State’s office, attended the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government Capitol press corps luncheon where Watson was the guest speaker. Gunn had not attended the luncheons previously other than when he was the guest speaker.

During his speech, Watson acknowledged the disagreement with Gunn over the issue. Watson, who served three terms as a state senator, also acknowledged the difficulty in passing legislation making major changes.

“But that is OK. That is part of the process,” he said.

Watson conceded moving the services to his office might not be the fix chosen by legislative leaders to deal with the long waits in many locations across the state to renew driver’s licenses, but he said, “I am going to be one of the guys driving that fix…We are going to keep talking about it.”

Watson added he believes the Secretary of State’s office is a logical agency to oversee the issuing of licenses and identification cards since the office already provides services to business that require similar expertise. In addition, the Secretary of State’s office already plays a role in the process since people can register to vote when renewing their license.

Watson proposed the transfer during his successful campaign for secretary of state. But two weeks ago as Watson rolled out legislation, Gunn released a statement to Mississippi Today from his spokesperson Emily Simmons, saying, ”While the speaker is committed to seeing improvements at the state’s driver’s license bureaus, he does not support moving oversight of the services to the Secretary of State’s office. He believes the services can be best improved within the Department of Public Safety, with the ultimate goal being to make the process as efficient as possible for Mississippians.”

Gunn has introduced his own legislation that would require the Department of Public Safety to mail notification to renew within 30 days of the expiration date of driver’s licenses and would allow people to renew online regardless of how long a license had been expired.

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, also has introduced a bill that would keep the services within the Department of Public Safety, but would take several steps, such as allowing tests administered at schools by certified personnel to replace the need to go to a bureau to have the test performed to obtain a first license, placing notices of what forms are needed to obtain and renew licenses and requiring the state Personnel Board to put in place job qualifications from some of the personnel in the driver’s license bureaus.

Simmons said Gunn and Busby “have been working on a legislative fix” to the issue for more than a year and that the primary goal of the legislation is to make the process more efficient, including for the acquisition of commercial driver’s licenses.

For years, Department of Public Safety officials have said a lack of funding has been one of the major issues causing the delays.

On Monday, Watson said it might be time to consider other vendors to help with some of the process. He said he believes the same vendor oversees the kiosks where licenses can be renewed and the computer system that produces the licenses.

A December report by the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee cited average wait times at the bureaus tripling from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2019, such as increasing from 11 minutes to 93 minutes at the Gulfport office and from one hour to two hours and 20 minutes at a Jackson office.

The report cited vacancies within the division – up from 20 percent to 30 percent – and problems with the new computer system interfacing with the federal system as reasons for the delay.

During the 2019 session, the Legislature did appropriate additional funds for extra examiners and the PEER report acknowledged that Public Safety is making progress in improving the process.