LANSING, Mich. — Michigan would forgive more than $600 million in extra “responsibility” fees that have been assessed to 317,000 motorists for certain traffic offenses under new legislation that is designed to help them regain their licenses and stop driving illegally.
The bipartisan bills announced Thursday, which are supported by Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard, would wipe away the debt a year from now. Newly assessed state fees, already set to end in October 2019, would be stopped a year earlier.
Leonard, of DeWitt, said when he worked as a prosecutor in the Flint area he saw the “awful impact” of the additional fees, which now range from $100 to $2,000 for driving without insurance, accumulating too many points from traffic infractions and committing other offenses. He said far too many working people paid their ticket only to be “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. … It is well past time we repealed this unjust mistake.”
The responsibility fees were enacted by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and lawmakers in 2003 to deter drivers who repeatedly violate traffic safety laws. But the fees have come under criticism as a government “money grab” that disproportionately hurts low-income motorists who cannot afford to pay.
In 2011, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder did away with some fees. In 2014, they moved to phase out all of them in the future and gave residents a one-year window in which they could do volunteer work instead of paying the fees for certain offenses.
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson called the fees a “double penalty” and criticized how they are automatically assessed without giving judges a chance to review the circumstances.
Leonard spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said more than half of the $600 million in debt is more than 6 years old.
“This money’s never coming in. It’s just putting a debt on people who can’t pay it,” he said.
The seven-bill package would also reinstate the community service option for people wanting to get back their licenses before the debt was cleared in 2018 and give immediate relief to those who already have a payment plan with the state.
One of the bill sponsors, Democratic Rep. Phil Phelps of Flushing, said drivers “deserve a clean slate” and it makes sense to address the fees amid increasing demands for legislators to address the state’s expensive auto insurance premiums.
Similar legislation is being crafted in the GOP-led Senate.
Snyder spokeswoman Tanya Baker noted that he signed the 2014 legislation to lessen and phase out responsibility fees but “would need a complete fiscal analysis” before assessing whether he has any budgetary concerns with forgiving outstanding fees.