Driver fee forgiveness plan stalled in Legislature

Jonathan Oosting
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Lansing — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and GOP legislative leaders are at odds over a plan to forgive hundreds of millions of dollars in “driver responsibility fees” and speed up a phase-out plan already on the books.

The Legislature broke for the holiday season this week with no signs of movement. It is a standoff that began two months ago when the House and Senate introduced and quickly approved bipartisan forgiveness plans, calling the fees a form of double punishment for Michigan motorists.

Senate leaders scaled back their legislation prior to the unanimous vote amid opposition from the Snyder administration, which still has budgetary concerns with the plan. But House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, continues to push for full forgiveness by October 2018.

“The time is up and the time is over for excuses,” Leonard said, telling reporters driver responsibility fee forgiveness is “near and dear to his heart” and will be one of his top priorities when session resumes next year.

Leonard and advocates for full forgiveness say the fees, which the state assessed on top of traditional fines for driving infractions, are unfair and have functioned as a cash-grab for the state. Originally promoted as a way to promote traffic safety, the fines can affect motorists who drive without insurance or are caught traveling as little as five miles per hour over the speed limit.

Drivers who cannot afford to pay the fees can lose their license, hurting their ability to get to work and contribute to the state economy.

“We’ve got over 300,000 of our citizens who are currently driving without a driver’s license,” Leonard said. “It’s time for us to get that matter resolved when we get back in January. “

About 317,000 Michigan drivers owe the state a collective $594 million in driver responsibility fees, according to the Detroit at Work program launched by the state’s largest city. It’s not clear how many of those individuals have lost their driver licenses as a result.

But state officials don’t expect to collect all that debt, which includes $304 million in outstanding fees that are at least six years old. The full forgiveness plan approved by the House is projected to cost the state $83.9 million in revenue between 2018 and 2021, according to the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency.

The scaled-back Senate plan, which would only forgive those debts that are at least six years old, would reduce state revenue by a lesser amount.

“We’re at different places, so I assume we’d probably have some sort of middle ground,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, a primary sponsor in the upper chamber.

Snyder’s office says he continues to be concerned about $2.1 billion in looming budget pressures that his administration also identified in opposing a House plan to cut the state personal income tax rate.

“However, he does support repeal of the fees and would like to keep the conversation open with the Legislature for next year’s budget cycle,” spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.

State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said he anticipates Snyder and legislative leaders will find common ground on driver responsibility fees, but he does not want to encourage drivers who are already on payment plans to stop paying the state.

“If you owe them money, you should pay it,” Meekhof said.

Budget officials this week identified $280 million in “lapsed” funding the state did not spend during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Lawmakers approved $52.85 million in supplemental spending on Wednesday, but Leonard said he believes the full forgiveness plan is still feasible.

“This is something we can afford,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do and we need to get these people their driver’s licenses back.”

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