Our editorial: State must dump onerous traffic fines

The Detroit News

Michigan lawmakers adjourned for their extended Christmas vacation last week without finishing an important piece of business. Because of their haste to get out of the Capitol, motorists will start the new year still under the burden of onerous driver responsibility fees.

Both the House and Senate passed bills weeks ago rolling back the fees, which amount to perpetual punishment for traffic offenses. But they’ve never got around to reconciling the packages and sending them to Gov. Rick Snyder, largely because lawmakers aren’t sure he’ll sign a bill.

Snyder is worried about the budget impact if the revenue from the fees is lost. Hanging on to money the state should never have grabbed in the first place is ridiculous.

The governor should be more concerned about the revenue Michigan is losing because these fees keep many people from working and paying taxes.

The driver responsibility fees were a gimmick to fill a 2003 budget hole. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm defended them with the argument they’d encourage better driving habits. But they were never anything but a money grab. The fees raise up to $115 million a year.

The fees are added to regular traffic fines for certain offenses, including reckless driving and not having proof of insurance. For motorists of limited means, they often make paying the fine impossible.

They are patently unfair and hurt the overall economy by keeping people out of the workforce. About 350,000 motorists owe $634 million in back driver responsibility fees. Those who don’t pay can lose their driver’s licenses.

For many, that also means they can’t work. So in a state economy that is short of tens of thousands of workers, many potential employees are kept out of the workforce by state policy.

The House version of the repeal bill would forgive the debt over a six-year period. The Senate bill would deem debt that is older than six years collectible. That amounts to about $304 million of the total.

The House package is preferable. Forgiving debt that is six years old and not obligations that are five years old creates questions of fairness.

These fees should never have been adopted in the first place. They amount to a double penalty for the same offense, and that’s taxation through the back door. It would have been more appropriate to raise all traffic fines on everyone.

Getting back to the work of scrapping driver responsibility fees and relieving motorists of debt they can’t pay should be a top priority of lawmakers when they return after the holidays.

State policies should encourage more people to join the workforce, and not to deny them the tools they need to get off the sidelines.

Making up the shortfall will require tough spending decisions. But this wrong must be righted regardless of the cost. Needless to say, we hope Gov. Snyder will see the light.