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David Sirota
David Sirota
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The Lesson Of The DMV


Like most people, I dislike spending time at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

But during a recent attempt to obtain a driver's license, I discovered The Lesson of the DMV — one that flips economic dogma on its head, and that America should keep in mind as our state legislatures convene this winter.

When I walked into the drab office in Aurora, Colorado a few weeks ago, I was given a ticket with a number on it. Let's just say my number was much higher than the number currently being called. I sat down with about 75 others, and after an hour, we were told the computer system crashed, meaning we had to come back another day.

The next week, I visited a different office to try again. I took my number and waited two more hours as three DMV employees struggled to service a crowd of 125 people.

By the time I posed for my license photo, I had spent three total hours in a DMV office, as had at least 200 other people.

While I smiled for the camera, I considered this mundane encounter with state government in economic terms. Between all the people I waited with, about 600 combined hours of economic output was extracted from the state and thrown away. Multiply that over an entire year throughout any given state, and you see how poorly run public services take a severe — and hidden — toll on a state's economy.

Services, of course, do not fail in a vacuum. They fail because budget cuts leave them lacking adequate resources to succeed. While Republican economics teaches that less government spending means a stronger, more efficient economy, my experience at the DMV suggests otherwise, as does this state's overall experience as a test tube for conservatives' budget and tax doctrine.

In 1992, the Colorado GOP successfully pushed a so-called "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" (TABOR) that constitutionally bars the state from raising taxes to increase investment in government services — all in the name of growing Colorado's economy.

At the macro level, the scheme has done nothing to achieve that goal. In the first 12 years of the experiment, Colorado's employment grew at the same rate as its Rocky Mountain neighbors, none of which have such draconian spending restrictions. In fact, Colorado's economic growth rate in those years was slightly lower than the region's median economic growth rate.

At the micro level, the story is much worse.

Thanks to budget cuts, Colorado's DMV is now totally understaffed.

In 2003, the agency was forced to shut down 25 facilities. Those that remain are chronically overburdened. As the Colorado Springs Gazette reports, lines "are so long that people report spending all day at a driver's license office."

But that is just where it starts.

The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute notes that the state now ranks 39th in highway spending per capita, and the libertarian Reason Foundation points out that Colorado has among the most poorly maintained roads in America. Not surprisingly, national traffic surveys say Denver has developed some of the nation's worst congestion, with drivers having to waste an average of 51 hours a year commuting.

What about waiting for court services? If you think that helps economic growth, then budget cuts are for you. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that reduction in funding for Colorado's court system has meant major delays, backlogs and wait times for those businesses and individuals dealing with the state legal system.

The list goes on and on.

Thankfully, Coloradans recently passed a ballot initiative to temporarily halt spending restrictions. However, the rest of the country may not be so fortunate. Conservative activist Grover Norquist says that in the next 10 years he plans to push 25 constitutional spending caps in states, and that 25 years from now, all states will have TABORs.

When this ideological push inevitably starts in state legislatures this winter, just remember The Lesson of the DMV: Budget cuts and TABOR are code for long lines, traffic, endless waits for basic legal proceedings and all the other red tape inefficiencies that drag society down.

These silent, day-to-day consequences may go unrecorded by economic statistics and may be far away from the happy rhetoric of politicians and political activists. But they prove that slashing government services in the name of "taxpayer protection" does not result in lubricating a state's economic engine — it ends up throwing sand in the gears.

Writer and political analyst David Sirota is the bestselling author of "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government & How We Take It Back." His daily blog can be found at To find out more about David Sirota and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



1 Comments | Post Comment
I was wondering how many people would be willing to pay extra for a fast track lane at the DMV or court? I was first in line at the DMV in Loveland last week and people who showed up the same time as I did probably ended up waiting over an hour. I know I would be willing to pay at least $20 extra if they had a fast track lane.
Comment: #1
Posted by: blc
Wed Jun 30, 2010 1:48 AM
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