S.D. Democrats blast plan to close 17 driver's license stationsThree Democratic legislators, including one who is running for governor, criticized the Rounds administration Friday for its plan to close 17 driver’s license exam stations. The criticism was contained in a news release that called the plan “wasteful, unfair and wrongheaded.” The release also quoted Sen. Scott Heidepriem, D-Sioux Falls, Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, and Rep. Larry Lucas, D-Mission. Heidepriem is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for governor next year, when Republican Gov. Mike Rounds will be term-limited.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
Three Democratic legislators, including one who is running for governor, criticized the Rounds administration Friday for its plan to close 17 driver’s license exam stations.
The criticism was contained in a news release that called the plan “wasteful, unfair and wrongheaded.” The release also quoted Sen. Scott Heidepriem, D-Sioux Falls, Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, and Rep. Larry Lucas, D-Mission. Heidepriem is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for governor next year, when Republican Gov. Mike Rounds will be term-limited.
The closures are scheduled for Oct. 1. Cities affected are Britton, Howard, Tyndall, Parkston, Salem, Freeman, Canton, Flandreau, Clark, Clear Lake, De Smet, Deadwood, Platte, Philip, Beresford, Mission and Wagner.
In the news release, Heidepriem, the Senate minority leader, said the plan should be put on hold and reviewed by the Legislature.
“Legislators owe it to the people in those 17 communities to review the facts and determine whether it’s necessary or even practical to close the exam stations,” he said.
Joe Kafka, press secretary for Gov. Rounds, defended the closures Friday in e-mailed responses to questions from The Daily Republic.
Kafka said the closures are part of a statewide restructuring effort driven by the rising demand for driver’s licensing services in larger cities. The state hopes to meet that demand without adding new employees, and that’s why 17 stations in smaller communities are scheduled to close. Resources will be shifted to stations in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, Watertown and Brookings.
“If we were to continue with all existing sites, we’d need more staff and that would add to program costs,” Kafka said. “In addition, nine of the 17 locations to be closed Oct. 1 would need technology upgrades, and that would add expenses, too.”
Kafka said South Dakotans only need to renew their driver’s licenses every five years, and they can do so anytime within 180 days prior to their license’s expiration date. Fifty-six stations statewide will remain open after the 17 closures.
“We’d hope that they could combine those renewals with trips they’d normally make to locations where licensing offices are open,” Kafka said of affected drivers.
Heidepriem indicated that state officials should have mentioned the planned closures last winter when they received the Legislature’s approval to increase the driver’s license fee from $8 to $20. The fee for commercial licenses was raised from $15 to $25.
“Nobody mentioned the need to close offices when they came with their hat in hand,” Heidepriem said.
To announce the closures later and “arbitrarily,” Heidepriem said, is “unacceptable” and penalizes people who live near the affected stations.
Kafka said the fee increases were a “completely separate issue.” The increases were necessary, he said, to cover the cost of a new contract for the software, hardware and materials used to produce a driver’s license or ID card.
Hunhoff, the House minority leader and a former Democratic gubernatorial nominee, suggested in the news release that it might be more efficient for a driver’s license examiner to drive a long distance to test numerous applicants than for numerous applicants to drive to a distant station.
“Shifting costs to the customer hardly qualifies as government efficiency,” Hunhoff said. “What’s the benefit of the state saving $1 if it costs a dozen taxpayers $2?”
Lucas resides at Mission, which is one of the cities that will lose its station. He decried the potential impact on the poor and elderly.
“Now, on top of a $12 fee increase, the people in Todd County where I live will have to travel 50 or 60 miles and take time off work,” Lucas said in the release.
The station closest to Mission that is scheduled to remain open is 21 miles to the north in White River. Other stations in the Mission area that will remain open are in Martin, 59 miles west of Mission; Murdo, 46 miles north of Mission; and Winner, 43 miles east of Mission.
The news release closed with a threat of a “legislative backlash” if the closures are carried out.
“This is an unnecessary swipe at rural South Dakota,” Heidepriem said. “Small towns and cities contribute to the character and soul of our state. I trust that both urban and rural lawmakers recognize this and will join us in doing something about the arbitrary closings.”
When Kafka was asked about the chances of the plan being postponed or canceled, he said he “will not speculate on the politics” that could influence the process. When asked who made the decision on the closings and whether Gov. Rounds signed off on the plan, he said only that the decision was made by Tom Dravland, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety. That department includes the Driver Licensing Program.
Kafka had no estimate of savings that will result from the closures but said costs will go up if the closures are canceled.