Wright County officials are going to be picking up the torch of trying to get the driver’s testing station in Buffalo re-opened in 2021 and they will have the backing of the county’s state legislative delegation.
On Wednesday, Nov. 18, the Wright County Board of Commissioners met virtually with those representing portions of Wright County at the State Legislature – Senators Bruce Anderson and Andrew Mathews and Representatives Eric Lucero, Joe McDonald, Shane Mekeland, Paul Novotny, Marion O’Neill and Dean Urdahl. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the issues most pressing to Wright County from the State Legislature, including the Buffalo testing station and added funding for elections, Health & Human Services and to combat Aquatic Invasive Species.
While the news coming back from the legislative delegation wasn’t positive – due to the cost of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, there is going to be a projected budget shortfall of between $5-10 billion for the next session and, unlike the federal government, states are required to have a balanced budget. The result could be some significant belt-tightening for the state in the coming year, which may eliminate most requests for additional funding.
However, attempting to re-open driver’s testing exam stations may be an option the state will be willing to explore, since several counties have requested that they be allowed to run the operation and use a fee structure to absorb the cost.
Prior to COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Driver & Vehicle Services (DVS) had 93 testing stations in Minnesota, including one in Buffalo. When the pandemic began in March, all DVS testing stations were closed for more than two months. When they reopened in late May, there was a huge backlog made more problematic by the state only reopening 14 of the 93 exam centers.
“This was a problem before COVID,” said Commissioner Darek Vetsch, who testified before a legislative committee discussing the matter this summer. “Since COVID, a bad situation has become much worse. If you’re a Wright County resident, you either have to go to St. Cloud or Plymouth to get to the nearest testing site and very often they’re full and you have to try more than once. Some have had to travel to Mankato or way up north to get their testing done.”
Vetsch asked Lucero if he would be willing to continue to attempt to push a bill through that would allow counties that choose to have the ability to take on the exam station testing. Lucero, who co-sponsored a bill in the last session that got bogged down when other competing bills with DVS stations station language watered down support.
Lucero said one of his priorities would be to again sponsor the bill and try to work its way through to a vote. Shane Zahrt of the lobbying firm Flaherty & Hood said the bill may have a strong chance of passage because the problem isn’t unique to Wright County.
“I believe there is going to be statewide support for this bill, because it is a problem that is impacting a lot of residents who have the same concerns as Commissioner Vetsch,” Zahrt said. “In places like Roseau in northern Minnesota, it can be a two-hour drive both ways to take a driving test. Unless you live in one of the larger cities in the state, you have to travel – often long distances – to get to a testing facility. That has resonated throughout the state since the summer.”
In a year when there likely isn’t going to be much new spending authorized by the State Legislature as it tackles its budget deficit, the odds are looking up that at some point in 2021, the exam station in Buffalo will reopen, whether in its current location or the new Government Center – quite possibly with Wright County running the operation for residents.