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Democratic lawmakers introduce bills to address Secretary of State appointment backlog

jocelyn benson at podium

Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation on Tuesday aimed at addressing the backlog for appointments at Secretary of State offices. 

"We've never been in a situation where the Secretary of State's office has been forced to process a 13 month backlog on top of their normal business,” said State Rep. Julie Brixie of East Lansing, who spoke at a virtual press conference alongside Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. 

Michigan drivers whose licenses expired during the state of emergency decree were given reprieve from enforcement through an executive order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. That order, paired with the temporary closure of Secretary of State offices due to the pandemic caused a backlog for services such as license renewals and title transfers. 

A bill authored by Brixie would add 200 temporary positions to Secretary of State office staff through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. A separate bill introduced by State Rep. Stephanie Young of Detroit would pay for 70,000 of overtime by existing staff members during the same time period. Both measures would be funded with federal funding allocated through the American Recovery Act. 

“Not only would this bill increase staffing during normal business hours,” Young said of her proposed legislation, ‘It will also allow the secretary of state branch offices to expand their hours so people have more flexibility in conducting their business with the office.” 

At the press conference, Benson said that the majority of services that were handled by staff at Secretary of State offices are now available through self-service online, by mail, or at kiosks at local grocery stores. “We've created options for Michiganders to renew their vehicles and licenses without visiting a branch office,” she said, noting that only 40% of services are now carried out in person, down from 75% in 2018.

Reps. Young and Brixie called on the House Oversight Committee to take up their bills before lawmakers break for the summer recess later this month. But their bills did not appear on an agenda issued this week. Representative Steven Johnson, who chairs the Committee, told Michigan Radio that he did not think their bills were a “real solution” to the backlog since they didn’t allow for walk-in appointments. 

“We've heard from plenty of people within our district and other districts of the constituents of ours, and they made it abundantly clear what they're looking for is the option to go to walk in to get their license plate figured out and get the title transferred, their driver's license renewed, and everything that they need to take care of,” he said, adding, “They need the opportunity to walk in.”  

The issue of walk-in appointments has been a contentious issue among lawmakers, since the Secretary of State offices made them a permanent requirement last April. Secretary of State offices handled 350,000 appointments a month, Benson said when she announced an end to the so-called “take a number” approach in place before the pandemic. 

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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