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Expert advice: raise Minnesota driver's license fees

An independent panel recommends raising fees as part of a comprehensive effort to improve customer service and bolster finances of license bureaus.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Driver's licenses would cost more, but last longer, if lawmakers adopt the recommendation of a panel of experts who were asked to study Minnesota's Driver and Vehicle Services division.

The panel made dozens of recommendations for improving customer service, and finding ways to financially bolster deputy registrars, the private operators and city offices that handle vehicle registration and driver's licenses.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers who serve on the Senate and House transportation committee hosted a news conference Thursday with Rick King, who led the independent expert review of DVS.

Among them is making driver's licenses last eight years instead of the current four-year lifespan. Another suggestion is allowing drivers over the age of 21 licensed by other states to get a Minnesota DL without taking the written test.

Both suggestions would lessen the workload on DVS staff and deputy registrar, at a time when they're dealing with large numbers of frustrated customers who want things to happen faster.

King, a retired publishing executive who serves as the chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said those registrars are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted due to the backlog caused by COVID-related shutdown and the surge in applications for REAL ID's.

"We have a large number of deputy registrars working really hard on behalf of the State and the customers out there to serve them," King told reporters.

"But financially almost all of them are under some stress, whether they’re public or private, they have some financial stress that’s due to the increasing number of transactions."

He said as some DVS functions have moved online the driver's license offices have lost money because they're not allowed to collect a filing fee on those transactions. And the customers who do take care of business in person often have more complicated, time-consuming applications.

That's one of the reasons the panel recommends that deputy registrars receive a share of the fees the state collects from online customers.

On the bright side, King said the MNDRIVE computer network used by registrars is functioning much better than its predecessor, which was known as MNLARS.

The report, co-authored by experts Amy Albus, Jenni Hein and Theresa Wise, also recommends reducing the number of DVS driver examination sites but for the purpose of increasing staffing and setting uniform hours.

King's group suggests capping the number of exam stations at between 40 to 50. It would cut down on the travel time of examiners who currently take to the road often to drive from the main hub to the smaller satellite stations.

"So that we can tell people what are the hours for each of those offices. When are they open and reliably open and who’s going to have staff going there? And how do you get prepared for those exams so you don’t have to re-take them."

Currently, DVS has 93 driver exam stations, and the waiting times vary greatly from city to city. DVS has taken steps to address the long wait times, but a huge backlog was created when many of those stations shut down during the worst parts of the COVID pandemic.

"The requirement in law that someone be able to get an appointment in 14 days is problematic in my opinion," King remarked.

He said one way to shorten the waiting time would be to find alternate ways to deal with people who've failed the driving test twice, rather than allowing them to continue to try without further training.

The report also suggests tracking which driving schools applicants come from, so DVS can flag those schools whose graduates have a particularly high failure rate in the driver examination phase.

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