Back in the days when former Gov. Jennifer Granholm was squeezing every nickel she could out of state taxpayers to avoid setting tough spending priorities, she settled on an ingenious idea: driver responsibility fees.
The righteously named levies took an old tactic — using traffic citations to plump up government coffers — and turned it into an ATM machine for the state treasury.
Instead of collecting the fines for a driving infraction just once, Granholm’s 2004 bill nails those ticketed multiple times for the same offense.
For example, if a citation pushes a motorist above the seven point mark on his or her driving record, an additional $100 is tacked onto the fine. If the offense is for drunk driving, an extra $500 is added per year, for two years. And if an accident causes injury or death, the fine goes to $1,000 for each of two years. If the fines aren’t paid, a motorist can not renew a driver’s license.
The former governor pitched the blatant money grab as a wake-up call to bad drivers.
Encouraging good driving was never its real intent. Instead, it denies drivers the licenses they need to get to jobs and is plunging many deeply into debt. Since interest compounds for unpaid fines, the fees become increasingly more difficult to pay the longer the offender waits to settle the obligation.
It is perhaps the most offensive tax ever adopted in Michigan. And the most regressive. The majority of the 300,000 motorists who owe more than $600 million in unpaid fees live in urban areas, and a large percentage of them are low income.
Though the idea germinated inside the Granholm administration, it was passed with the help of Republicans in the Legislature.
But not without some guilt. In 2011, lawmakers amended the law to exempt those cited for driving with a suspended license or failure to show proof of insurance. In 2014, the Legislature agreed to phase out the fees altogether in 2019 and set up a temporary amnesty program that allowed the fines to be met with community service.
A bill now pending in the House would push up the expiration timetable to next year.
The state collects roughly $20 million a year in driver responsibility fees; much more goes uncollected. So wiping them away will not have a significant impact on the budget.
In fact, it may improve revenue collections, since those who have been unable to work because they can’t drive may come back into the taxpaying workforce.
Under the pending legislation, all outstanding fees will be wiped away when the program ends. Those who want to get their licenses reinstated earlier can enter a community service program to pay off their debt.
The driver responsibility fees have not made Michigan drivers more responsible. But they have turned too many of them into scofflaws unable to fully function as productive members of society because of this pyramid scheme designed by the state to shake down its own citizens.
This bill should sail through the Legislature.