Dan Walters, CALmatters Commentary

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Ambitious politicians like to dazzle us with what Hollywood screenwriters call “high concept” pitches that reduce complex ideas to a few succinct words.

Gavin Newsom is certainly an ambitious politician and is extraordinarily oriented toward high-concept gestures. His latest emerged during a quick trip to El Salvador last week, ostensibly to learn why so many Salvadorans are making arduous treks to the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping to gain asylum.

Newsom floated the notion that he and California can “punch above our weight” and become global leaders on immigration policy just as his predecessor, Jerry Brown, carved out a leadership role on climate change – both drawing sharp contrasts, of course, with President Donald Trump.

“The one area that California should do more is on immigration policy,” he said on the second of his three days in El Salvador. “That’s why I’m down here. That’s what I want to bring back in terms of the leadership that we want to advance for our state.”

It’s much too early to tell whether Newsom’s ambitions on immigration become reality, but as he was touring El Salvador, another crisis much closer to home was blowing up – and how he handles it will probably have much more impact on his gubernatorial career.

It involves the state agency that Californians love to hate, the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It has been plagued by spectacular failures in customer service, manifested in hours-long wait times at DMV offices, and in implementing the federally mandated “REAL ID” program of more secure driver’s licenses, and the state’s “motor voter” program of automatically registering customers as voters.

Brown more or less ignored the agency’s mounting deficiencies during his last months in office. When legislators pressed for an independent audit of DMV last year, Brown resisted and insisted that his own Department of Finance delve into its problems – thereby postponing the day of political reckoning.

As Newsom unveiled his first budget in January, he promised “a fresh start” to solve DMV’s obvious problems and appointed a “strike team” to “begin the work of significant change and reinvention.”

Last month, the Department of Finance released its audit, declaring that “DMV has operated with significant weaknesses in its underlying governance structure and organizational culture” and urging a major overhaul.

Newsom now owns DMV’s many deficiencies and has pledged – implicitly departing from Brown’s lackadaisical attitude – to create what his strike team calls “the DMV of the future” that will be efficient and responsive.

All those steps laid the groundwork for a three-hour-long hearing of an Assembly budget subcommittee last week – and it didn’t go well for Newsom’s representatives.

The administration is seeking hundreds of millions of new dollars to hire thousands of new employees and upgrade its ancient technology, but Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, flatly told Newsom’s officials that the request “will not be approved as is.”

Ting and other legislators complained that they had been given promises of improvement in the past that were not fulfilled. “Everything that was said today was said in August,” Ting told DMV’s acting director, Kathleen Webb, and Marybel Batjer, secretary of the Government Operations Agency. “What was said was not done.”

Ting described himself as “extraordinarily, incredibly disappointed” that they had come to the hearing without details on how the requested money would be spent and how it would solve the agency’s shortcomings.

Newsom may or may not become a global leader on immigration issues, as he aspires, but when he seeks re-election in 2022, he’d better have fixed the DMV.

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Dan Walters wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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