Move to forgive all driver fee debt hits snag in Legislature
By DAVID EGGERT
Oct. 19, 2017
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A movement to quickly forgive more than $600 million in outstanding extra driver "responsibility" fees assessed by the state has hit a snag in the Legislature.
The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to wipe away the debt a year from now, but only if a motorist's fee is six years or older. That could benefit more than half of the 348,000 drivers with outstanding fees, according to lawmakers.
The Michigan Department of Treasury could still seek to collect the rest of the fees, though they would be waived later on — six years after they are deemed as outstanding.
"Basically it's a six-year phase-out," said the bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Dave Hildenbrand of Lowell. "A phase-out is probably more fiscally responsible than immediately forgiving everything."
The Senate's shift in approach set the stage for negotiations with Gov. Rick Snyder and the House, which is expected to soon approve legislation that would forgive the entire amount owed in October 2018, which was $634 million less than a month ago. Snyder's administration has some concerns with the bills.
GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt said he continues to favor full debt forgiveness.
"I don't believe we should ever allow an unjust fee to patch holes in our budget," he said.
As of April 1, debt that was six years or older totaled $304 million, according to the Treasury Department.
The responsibility fees were enacted by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and lawmakers in 2003 to deter drivers who repeatedly violate traffic safety laws. But the fees, which are imposed in addition to regular fines, have come under criticism as a budget-balancing "money grab" that disproportionately hurt low-income motorists who cannot afford to pay.
The state suspends the driver's license of those who do not fully pay the fees or who do not have an installment plan.
"Once you get these individuals back in the workforce, once they can go and properly obtain a driver's license, I think this is going to be an economic development tool for our state," Leonard said. "I think you're actually going to see more money come to the coffers once these individuals can obtain a job."
In 2011, the Legislature and Snyder did away with some fees. In 2014, they moved to phase out all of them in the future and gave residents a one-year window in which they could do volunteer work instead of paying the fees for certain offenses.
The fees now range from $100 to $2,000 for offenses such as driving without insurance and accumulating too many points from traffic infractions. Bipartisan bills approved Thursday would speed up the elimination of newly assessed fees, possibly as soon as they are signed into law. Other measures would allow motorists to do community service to clear their debt and let those whose driving privileges have been suspended for unpaid responsibility fees immediately reinstate their license.
"It's a hurdle to get to work, get to school — quality of life issues," Hildenbrand said. The fees are "exorbitant and unnecessary," he said.
Snyder's office said he has concerns about the budgetary impact of forgiving the debt, but is working with lawmakers and monitoring the various versions of the bills and associated costs. "The governor is always concerned when legislators seek to eliminate revenue that they have already planned on spending," spokesman Ari Adler said.
Senate Bills 609-615, 625-26: http://bit.ly/2zBU6vQ