The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 29, 2011

Last-minute rush at licensing offices before possible shutdown

By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press

MANKATO — The waiting room at the state license bureau office on Basset Drive was full and spilling into the lobby for a time Wednesday afternoon. Lines at the Blue Earth County License Center on Fifth Street were also stretching longer than usual this week.

And today — which appears to be the last day Minnesota’s state government will be fully operational for a while — Patty O’Connor expects her county office to be even busier.

“We’ve already experienced tremendous lines in the drivers license portion of the office,” said O’Connor, Blue Earth County’s director of taxpayer services. “The state exam station has just been buried ... .”

The pre-shutdown rush isn’t necessary for many people. Anyone simply looking to renew a valid drivers license will be able to do that at the county office even if the state government shuts down, O’Connor said. So will people applying for a state ID or changing an address on a valid drivers license.

“We’re expecting that we will have computer access, that we’ll be able to do our work as usual,” she said.

Customers — as always — will leave with the traditional yellow receipt and will have to wait to get their hard-plastic picture-ID drivers license mailed to them. And that won’t happen until the state government is operating again.  

“You won’t get your hard card,” O’Connor said, noting the absence of that could be an issue for some people. “Getting on an airplane is awfully hard with a yellow receipt.”

But the people who will really be stuck are those seeking a new drivers license — a first-time Minnesota driver, a driver seeking an upgraded license to drive a bus or truck or motorcycle, or a driver looking to reactivate a suspended license. Any license service requiring an exam — written or driving — will be unavailable after today until a new two-year budget is agreed to by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Dan Southwick, the regional supervisor for the Department of Public Safety’s State Licensing  Bureau in Mankato, said his office has been busy but wouldn’t attribute that to customers worried that they’ll be out of luck on Friday.

“We do have lines,” Southwick said. “A little more than normal.”

He said he hasn’t quizzed people about why they’re dealing with licensing issues this week, so he couldn’t estimate how many were trying to slip in ahead of the shutdown. Of five people interviewed by The Free Press Wednesday afternoon, however, four said they were racing the shutdown clock.

Steve Wilson of North Mankato was renewing a license, so he would have been able to get that done later even with a shutdown. But Wilson, who needs a valid license for his courier job, wasn’t taking any chances — although his license doesn’t expire until the second half of July.

While he doesn’t rule out a long shutdown, he wants state leaders to reach a compromise long before then.

“I hope they get it done pretty quick,” Wilson said. “It’s going to affect a lot of things a lot of people aren’t thinking about.”

Another customer who was attempting to get a license reinstated after losing it because of traffic offenses — and wouldn’t give his name — missed Wednesday’s 3:30 p.m. deadline for taking the written exam. He was frustrated because he’d been told he could arrive anytime before 4:30 p.m.

The man is now down to today — probably the final one before state license office is shuttered — to get his license problems fixed. And he’ll need to leave work early again to meet the 3:30 deadline.

He was feeling the pressure and also feeling little confidence that the closing of the license bureau will be a brief one.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to be,” he said. “It could be a couple of weeks, a month, a year. We don’t know.”

And his frustration was definitely carrying over to elected officials in the state Capitol.

They still got paid even as they’ve been “sitting on their asses for five months,” he said. “... They’re playing games with everybody’s’ lives . It’s not right.”