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Quickest way to voters’ hearts runs through the DMV

When a state agency issues a news release about its progress toward goals it has set itself, no one can really blame it for putting the good news at the top.

So in a notice sent out to news agencies Thursday, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation unsurprisingly first drew attention to a decline in deaths on state highways in the past six months and an increase in the use of seat belts. That was all well and good, but to get to the bit that the pubic was really going to care about, I had to keep reading.

There, toward the end of the release, it was spelled out in black and white (and illustrated in color if one clicked on this link): People were having to wait longer to be helped at Department of Motor Vehicles service centers.

How much longer, the news release doesn’t say. But it does note that only 68 percent of the “customers” who go to a service center receive “are served,” whatever that means, within 20 minutes. The state’s goal is to have the figure up to 80 percent.

That the wait at DMV service centers can be long is something I don’t need to see statistics to believe.

My few trips to DMV offices have, in fact, been brief. And I probably can be grouped with that 68 percent of customers who managed to get out the door within 20 minutes. But in my latest visit, I was certainly among the happy few.

Finishing up a title transfer at the DMV’s Hill Farms office on Madison’s west side, I looked back and saw a line going out the door and down the corridor. It was about noon, which made me guess that most of those waiting had thought they would drop into the service center during their lunch hour and be back to the office by 1 p.m. I had to imagine a lot of them either gave up or took a half day of vacation in the end.

It all made me recall something that the former governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, had said while I was living and working for newspapers in the Hoosier State: that one of the few regular occasions that people have with state government, other than at tax time, comes when their driver’s licenses or vehicle registrations are up for renewal.

Daniels’ success at reducing wait times at the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles is something even his staunchest critics find it difficult to deny. The improvements were so noticeable that the Indiana BMV could have dispensed with the inevitable press release tooting the bureau’s own horn; an outside organization, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, was happy to do the tooting.

Gov. Scott Walker has made no secret of his admiration of Daniels and has followed Daniels’ lead in various ways. Just as Daniels created the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and charged it with bringing jobs to the state, so Walker established the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and gave it the same mission; just as Daniels made it a point to stay in touch with constituents by regularly traveling to different parts of the state to make announcements, so Walker can rarely be found in the same city on two consecutive days. And Walker has said it made him envious that Daniels was able to take away most public workers’ collective bargaining rights simply by issuing an executive order, thereby avoiding the protracted fight in the state legislature that Walker had to go through when he pushed for a similar change.

But in all of his imitations of the former Indiana government, Walker should keep in mind what Daniels was quick to comprehend: That for many voters, the performance of state government is measured by how fast they can renew their driver’s licenses.

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