Dem lawmakers float $25M plan to increase Secretary of State hours, staffing

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
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Lansing — Two Democratic lawmakers are proposing legislation that would push an extra $25 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to the Secretary of State's offices over the next four months. 

The bills by Reps. Julie Brixie of Meridian Township and Stephanie Young of Detroit would designate the extra cash to pay for extra employees and overtime to process a backlog of license renewals, registrations, IDs and permits whose deadlines have been extended during the pandemic. 

Young's bill would push $5 million toward overtime costs through Sept. 30, while Brixie's legislation would help to hire 230 more full-time employees through the end of the fiscal year for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a fellow Democrat.

Together the initiatives would result in 500,000 more appointments this fiscal year, Young and Brixie estimated during a Tuesday press conference.

"We’ve never been in a situation where the Secretary of State's office has been forced to process a 13-month backlog on top of their normal business," said Brixie, arguing it was lawmakers who created the issue by allowing all of the pandemic-era extensions to expire all at once on March 31. 

"We have developed this legislation as a fix to this critical problem,” Young said.

Rep. Julie Brixie, Rep. Stephanie Young and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announce a $25 million plan to increase overtime and staffing at Secretary of State branches through Sept. 30 to handle a backlog in services.

The lawmakers are hoping the House Oversight Committee, which took testimony from Benson last week, will be willing to hold a hearing on the bills. 

But the chances of such a hearing are slim as House Republican leaders challenge Benson's decision to end walk-in appointments permanently and instead make branch offices across the state by appointment only. 

"I'm not interested in throwing more money at the Secretary of State," said Rep. Steve Johnson, the Wayland Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee. "Instead of making people wait months to get an appointment, Secretary Benson needs to pen the SOS offices for walk-in visits."

Benson on Tuesday defended the system and accused Republicans of playing political games in opposing the plan and ignoring a supply and demand issue that's been plaguing the department's branch offices for years.

"Reverting to a take a number system does not address the underlying supply and demand issue," Benson said. 

House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, R-Albert, has opposed the idea of using one-time federal funds to pay for initiatives that would require an ongoing revenue stream to support. 

The plan to fund additional branch office positions could fall into that category.

"We did not plan for the 200 positions to be permanent," Brixie said. "However, due to the chronic understaffing of the office that's gone on over the years, I think we could look at it as a pilot program if the secretary were interested in altering hours and providing different efficiencies or conveniences for residents."

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