Slowdown at licensing office may not mean fewer newcomers

Some suspect policy shifts in various states drove spike in 2010

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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What appears to be a disappointing slump last year in 2010’s resurgence of Clark County newcomers may be partly the effect of a new driver’s license requirement meant to prevent fraud.

The number of out-of-town arrivals who obtained driver’s licenses in Clark County spiked by 22 percent from 2009 to 2010 after a three-year slide then declined by more than 10 percent to 2011.

The number of newcomers seeking driver’s licenses dipped by 5.6 percent statewide last year, too.

But the slowdown could be the result of a Department of Licensing rule change in November 2010 requiring driver’s license applicants to prove they reside in the state. Applicants now have to submit a utility bill, credit card statement or other form of verification before being granted a license.

“It was to reduce the number of people fraudulently obtaining a state driver’s license,” said Christine Anthony, a spokesperson at the state Department of Licensing.

The department started the requirement after noticing an unusually large number of out-of-state applicants, Anthony said. Washington, New Mexico and Utah are the only three states in the nation that don’t require proof of legal U.S. residency to obtain a driver’s license.

Surge in 2010

An Associated Press analysis in August 2010 found those states had a surge in immigrants seeking IDs after crackdowns on illegal residency in other places, including Arizona.

Washington’s new policy was followed by a plummeting in the number of new driver’s licenses. Between October and November 2010, the number issued statewide was nearly halved, from 19,470 to 10,872. Clark County was a microcosm of that. The number of new driver’s licenses declined from 1,789 in October 2010 to 1,066 in November 2010.

“We have noticed the number of individuals coming into Washington has had some decline since those changes were implemented,” said Alice Vogel, economic analyst with the state Department of Licensing. “There was also stalled economic recovery in 2011. We don’t know the direct amount of impact from each of those factors.”

Americans’ mobility remained at its lowest levels in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. That phenomenon could also be playing a role in lackluster migration into the county.

Migration within the nation slowed to 11.6 percent in 2011, down from 12.5 percent the previous year, according to the Census Bureau.

‘Doubling up’

“The small uptick in this rate during the two previous years can be attributed, in part, to the reshuffling of households resulting from foreclosures and doubling up,” William Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, wrote in a blog on the census figures.

“Doubling up” refers to the practice of relatives’ moving in with each other to pool resources and reduce expenses during times of hardship such job loss and foreclosure. One measurement of doubling up is households with three or more generations.

In Clark County, households with three or more generations grew by about 2 percent from 5,594 in 2009 to 5,716 in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.

“The economy was still pretty crummy (in 2011),” said Scott Bailey, regional economist with Washington Employment Security Department. “… It may be that people who could easily move after 2009 did so in 2010, sort of a pent-up demand from 2008-09.”

Slowed by snow

The number of new driver’s licenses in January 2012 in the county and state was uncharacteristically low, but that is likely partly due to a winter storm Jan. 18-20, Vogel said. February figures are not yet available.

The 881 new driver’s licenses in the county in January were the fewest for that month since 2003.

“The number of drivers who applied for licenses were directly impacted by the storm,” Vogel said. “We lost about a week’s worth of individuals because of the storm.”

The storm crippled Northwest Washington, with a lesser impact on Southwest Washington. However, it could have been a psychological deterrent to going out to get a license during that week.

Mobility is just one factor in economic health. Other indicators still point to some economic recovery in 2011. For example, the county added 1,200 net jobs in 2011, according to the state Employment Security Office. Home sales climbed by 6 percent during the same period, according to the Regional Multiple Listing Service.

“We are seeing people coming from all over the country,” said Mike Lamb, a real estate broker with Windermere/Stellar Group in Vancouver. “January was one of the best we’ve had (for home sales) in years since 2007. Driver’s licenses aren’t a perfect indicator of what’s going on.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; twitter.com/Col_Trends; facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.