House panel votes to push out SOS renewal deadlines, require walk-ins

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan House panel on Thursday moved legislation to the House floor that would push out renewal deadlines by 90 days for registrations, licenses and IDs that expired between March 31 and July 1. 

The legislation also would require Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to open her offices for in-person services for 25 hours per week, in opposition to Benson's recent decision to move permanently to an appointment-only system. 

The details of a deadline extension was a compromise with Benson's office, which wanted a rolling deadline to avoid all renewals coming due on one day, said state Rep. Steve Johnson, the Wayland Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee. 

"I’m trying to get them every thing we can but, in the end, we have to allow for the SOS office to be open," Johnson said. "So many people are demanding that. They’re saying the appointment-only system doesn’t work for them."

People wait in line at the Secretary of State branch office in Novi on March 16, 2021. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

The legislation includes language that would provide residents refunds for late fees for missing a renewal deadline.

Johnson said the Department of State still is not supportive of the walk-in provision in the legislation.

"They're not signing the bill," Johnson said of Benson's office. "The governor is the one that's going to make that decision. My guess is she's going to lean heavily on SOS Benson's opinion but hopefully she realizes that the people she's elected to serve are demanding this as well."

Michigan residents can visit branch offices any time, said department spokesman Jake Rollow said. 

"Our offices are open 40 hours a week for in person services, just as they have been for more than a year," Rollow said. "Michiganders can visit an office any time they want and our staff will serve them immediately if they have an opening, tell them when the next opening to serve them will be, or help them schedule a return visit to be served the next day or at a convenient time in the future. Legislators want to complicate what is actually a simple and practical system, embraced by the countless Michiganders who have used it and easily been in and out of our offices in just 20 minutes."

The bills, as passed by the Senate, initially sought to end all extensions on Sept. 30. The Legislature had extended renewal deadlines repeatedly during the pandemic with the most recent hard stop on March 30, exacerbating a backlog that built up during the pandemic. 

Democratic lawmakers sought to amend Thursday's legislation to add funding for more staff to clear the COVID-19 backlog, but the amendments were not adopted.

"The bills before us would just leave people who walk in waiting in line because of this pent-up COVID-created demand," said Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township. 

Republican lawmakers have clashed with the Democratic secretary of state over wait times at branch offices and her decision move to an appointment-only system at Michigan's 131 branch offices.

Benson has defended the decision, arguing that the appointment-only system ensures a customer is in and out of the office is less than 30 minutes. But customers have reported up to three-month wait times to actually schedule an appointment and a dearth of next-day appointments. 

Earlier this month, Benson announced plans to add 350,000 appointment slots through Sept. 30 and to place greeters at the doors of each branch office to help people make appointments.