Mich. House speaker pushes driver debt forgiveness plan

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard announced a bipartisan plan Thursday to repeal “driver responsibility fees,” or extra fees some drivers must pay in addition to a traffic ticket.

A seven-bill package from House Republicans and Democrats would scrap those fees and “offer complete forgiveness to drivers who have been impacted by the mistaken policy,” according to a release from Leonard’s office.

More than 300,000 Michigan drivers owe nearly $600 million collectively to the state due to such fees, according to the state Department of Treasury.

A report issued Tuesday by the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center found Michigan is one of five states that require judges to seize people’s licenses if they fail to pay court fees after a trial or hearing — even if they can’t pay and their case didn’t involve a traffic violation.

Michigan has currently suspended the licenses of more than 100,000 drivers for an indefinite time, according to the report.

“As a prosecutor in Genesee County, I saw every day the awful impact these unfair fees had on Michigan families,” Leonard, R-DeWitt, said in a statement. “Far too many working people who received a ticket and paid their fine were hit with new, impossible surcharges, often costing them their licenses, and then their jobs, and then their ability to ever pay off the mountain of debt.

“These are good people who just want to get to work and drive to school to pick up their children. They want to do the right thing, but the government has them trapped in a cycle of failure from which they can never escape. That is not right, and it is well past time we repealed this unjust mistake,” he said.

Former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation in 2003 enacting the fees.

Leonard and others argue that they penalize drivers and can lead to a cycle of more court fees and fines that stop many Michigan drivers from getting back on the road.

“Everyone in state government knows these fees are nothing more than a blatant money grab to fuel government spending with a tax on people who cannot afford to defend themselves,” Leonard said. “These bills will finally undo that mistake, help hundreds of thousands of Michiganders get back into the workforce and allow them to get their lives back on track.”

A bill from Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, would forgive outstanding debts related to driver responsibility fines while another bill in the package creates a program to help drivers learn how to reinstate their license.

The plan also would offer a community service option for people who can’t pay fines but need their license before debts would be forgiven and would extend immediate loan forgiveness to those “who are currently making a good-faith effort to pay their fines,” according to Leonard’s office.

It would also make drivers who lost their licenses due to fees eligible to have them renewed, while another would let drivers regain their license through court sobriety programs.

The package will be introduced and referred to a panel of lawmakers for consideration during the House session on Thursday.