Legislation seeks to protect DMV offices from future closures

The House State Affairs Committee meets on March 30, 2021.

The Department of Administration’s proposal to shutter six Department of Motor Vehicles offices has already been rejected by a House budget panel, and now legislators are seeking stronger protections to ensure the offices stay open.

House Bill 137 by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields would require the state to maintain its current slate of DMV offices. It would specifically bar the state government from closing or privatizing any office that was operating in a community with 850 people.

The Department of Administration proposal, which had been pitched by now-former Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, would have seen offices in Haines, Homer, Valdez, Tok, Delta Junction and Eagle River close with the hopes that private operators would move in. Those private operators are unregulated and currently charge as much as twice as much for some services than the state does. Fields said asking Alaskans to pay as much as twice the amount they would pay for services they could get from the state-run DMVs or travel hundreds of miles creates an issue of equity and fairness in Alaska.

“There’s really not a viable DMV nearby which would either lead to very long trips for Alaskans to access these essential services or force them to pay more,” he said, later adding that the disparity would only deepen economic divides. “Why at a time when a lot of Alaskans are reentering the work place, maybe trying to pay down debt that might have built up during the pandemic, why would we deepen economic divides by making it harder to access basic documents that are necessary to commute to work, to drive a truck or the case of seniors remain connected in their community?”

Peter Zuyus, the executive director of Seniors of Alaska, testified in support of the legislation, calling for permanent protections of these offices against closure.

“What a state DMV close mean for Alaska’s senior, disabled, rural, lower-income and Alaska Native residents? Residents of rural communities would have limited or no access to a state DMV. Public-private partnership may arrive in a community, but the convenience fee structure presents an economic and discriminatory hardship on seniors and other community members,” he said. “Seniors in Valdez would be forced to pay at least twice as much for mandated state services as seniors in other areas. That is outrageous and discriminatory.”

While the opposition to closing the rural offices in the budget committee was unanimous and bipartisan (there was some support for closing the Eagle River office), minority Republicans were tepid about this legislation. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, said she believed the administration would respect the Legislature’s actions. In a previous meeting, she said Tshibaka had personally assured her that the offices wouldn’t be closed.

“I’m struggling to see the need for this bill when our votes opposing the closure of the DMVs was made very clear,” she said. “By putting this in statute, it limits our ability each year to assess the needs of the state and have that flexibility of providing the most efficient government.”

Fields replied that it’s hard to trust the administration’s plans. Though the administration claimed it would respect the Legislature’s plans, Tshibaka had said during previous hearings that they were already in talks with private companies to take over the operations of what she called the “lucrative” markets. Fields noted the administration could move forward with closures through either an administrative measure or by veto.

Amendments and public testimony on the legislation are expected to be scheduled next week.

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