OLYMPIA — After six and a half years directing the Department of Licensing in Olympia, Liz Luce could no longer ignore the call to come home to Vancouver.
For the past two years, Luce wanted to permanently move back to Vancouver, where she and her husband, Jim, have resided for more than three decades.
Before taking her position at the DOL, Luce served three terms as Clark County auditor and headed U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Southwest Washington office. Now, at 63, she decided to give in to the urge and retire from the agency at this week.
Several years ago, Luce created the country’s first driver’s license that could be used in place of a passport for traveling across national borders.
The license was created partly out of concern that people without passports would not be able to cross the border between Washington and British Columbia during the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C. The license was also intended to boost business during the Games, as tourists flocked south to shop in Washington.
Reflecting on her leadership at the agency, presiding over about 1,300 employees and a budget of $293.7 million for the 2009-2011 biennium, Luce said she will be remembered for improving public safety during her time in office.
Chief John Batiste of the Washington State Patrol reflected on a motorcycle task force on which he and Luce worked together to enhance safety as one of Luce’s great accomplishments.
“We were trying to get a handle on the large number of people being killed out on our highway system,” Batiste said. “We turned a negative into a positive.”
The task force implemented new rules and legislation with the assistance of the motorcycle community to improve safety, Luce said.
“We went from having high deaths to the only state in the nation that lowered (its) motorcycle deaths,” she said.
Luce also cracked down on driving instructors who were not doing their jobs when she came into office.
“We had 82 schools around the state that weren’t teaching kids to drive, that were taking the money and just giving them a diploma,” she said.
The department clamped down with legislation and stricter audits to keep driving instructors in line, Luce said.
While under pressure to close DOL offices throughout the state due to funding reductions over the past couple years, Luce enhanced the DOL’s online presence.
“When I came in, we had no social media, no YouTube videos, nothing,” she said.
By encouraging drivers to renew their license tabs via email, the department saves a stack of paper equal to the height of two Space Needles stacked on top of each other, Luce said. Enhancing Internet services has also cut down wait time to less than 30 minutes at 83 percent of the DOL offices throughout the state — something that makes Luce proud of her work.
“The more seamless you can make the government process, the better,” she said.
Before stepping down, Luce made one last effort to protect the department’s funding going forward.
“I would have probably left in January, but this budget this year, I felt I needed to be able to get that settled for the agency,” she said. “I wanted to leave knowing that everything was in place.”
Originally, the DOL faced a $12 million cut for the 2011-2013 biennium. Luce fought hard to bring that down to $3 million for the final budget.
Batiste praised Luce for her efforts to protect the DOL’s budget.
“She’s been a great colleague,” he said, “and she’s had some very tough decisions — like I have to make — in these tough budget times.
“She and I came in together as agency heads under Gov. (Chris) Gregoire,” Batiste said, “and we immediately struck up a great relationship in terms of working together.”
Luce said she feels bittersweet about leaving Olympia. Dreaming she could hold onto the best of both worlds, Luce wishes she could move the state capital to Vancouver.
“The sweet is I’m coming home,” she said. “The bitter is I love everybody that I’ve worked with. I’ve just had incredible people.”
Each weekend, a “magnetic pull” drew Luce back to visit her family at home. She braved the unforgiving rain and heavy traffic on Interstate 5 for the long commute south from Olympia.
“Every Sunday, I would pack up and get ready to go, and the magnet was there,” she said.
But eventually Luce had enough of the drive.
In her time away, Luce missed seeing her neighborhood friends. She laments not finding time to have them over for dinner in the past six and a half years.
Now that Luce is coming back to Vancouver, she wants to finally relax. She plans to garden, rejoin her neighborhood book club, volunteer at youth organizations, and spend time with her grandchildren.