While wait times for those seeking driver’s licenses have gone up, the money taxpayers are spending on a contract for a new computer system is also increasing.
The amount taxpayers spent to get the state’s driver’s license system compliant with federal ID law passed in 2005 and known as the REAL ID program has increased from more than $42 million to $59 million. The biggest increase came in January after the contract specifications were changed for the ninth time.
In fiscal 2020, taxpayers spent $4.1 million for the Department of Public Safety (DPS) on the new computer system. The contract runs until 2022 and the provider, a French company called Idemia, has a near-monopoly on the U.S. market for driver’s licenses.
According to a report issued in December by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER), wait times at driver’s license bureaus run by the state Department of Public Safety have tripled from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2019.
The PEER report also said that the new computer system requires frequent reboots and has trouble sometimes printing licenses or ID cards.
The more than $59 million wasn’t all taxpayers have spent on driver’s licenses.
During the 2019 session, the Legislature appropriated an additional $3.3 million to help with the issuance of commercial driver’s licenses.
The PEER report also mentioned a shortage of examiners, who don’t command high salaries. An advertisement for an examiner trainee in Harrison County listed a starting salary of $20,231. A similar position in Alabama has a salary range of $25,838 to $38,335.
The DPS has a shortfall in the filling of examiner job vacancies, with one third of the positions still open as of last year.
DPS has asked in its budget request for fiscal 2021 (which starts on July 1) for $2.9 million to equip a new driver’s license bureau in Madison with workstations and other equipment and more money for salary increases for existing examiners.
One of the primary reasons for DPS delays at driver’s license bureaus are federal mandates concerning ID cards. Mississippi was forced to procure a new computer system that is compliant with the REAL ID mandates and designed to prevent people from holding credentials from various states as did the 9/11 terrorists.
According to PEER, these standards have inflexible requirements and this requires “rigid compliance” for examiners without the skipped steps that were possible with the old system.
In 2011, the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services, on behalf of the DPS, issued a request for procurement (RFP) to seek bids for a new computer system for the state’s driver’s licenses.
The RFP was answered by only one firm, MorphoTrust, that has a near stranglehold on the U.S. marketplace with 42 states employing the company for services related to their driver’s licenses.
In 2012, ITS agreed to a contract with the company, now known as Idemia. The firm specializes in security and identity, including facial recognition systems. The company was also responsible for maintaining the automated kiosks present at most driver’s license bureaus and will provide nine new kiosks this year at a cost of $460,000.
States have a deadline of October 1, 2021 to comply with the REAL ID mandates. Originally, the deadline was for this October, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to push it back by a year.
Only two states — Oklahoma and Oregon — are not compliant with the tenets of the REAL ID system and both have filed extensions to give state officials more time to implement the regulations.
Idemia is also behind a push to provide digital driver’s licenses on smartphones, which are being tested in at least a dozen states. Louisiana has already adopted this program. A bill in the Legislature that would’ve started a similar program died earlier in the session.
According to the appropriation for fiscal 2020, which ends July 1, the DPS issued 505,608 driver’s licenses and identification cards. The agency also claimed that the number of wait times and complaints were down from the previous year.
The company spent $360,000 or $60,000 annually to lobby the Legislature, from 2012 to 2017.