Michigan Secretary of State's office

A Secretary of State's office in Roseville.

(The Center Square) – The Michigan Senate Thursday approved a three-bill package to alleviate consequences from a 14-month backlog at Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office.

Senate Bill (SB) 508 aims to extend the expiration of enhanced licenses and state ID cards until Sept. 30. The move would be retroactive to April 1.

SB 507 seeks to extend the validity of driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, while SB 509 aims to extend expiration of state ID cards.

The package aims to bar Benson's office from charging late fees until it offers "adequate in-person services,” which is defined in the bill as "a minimum of 25 hours a week of in-person services, without the requirement of an appointment or preregistration."

Former Secretary of State Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, backed the plan.

“These bills will hold people harmless if they can’t get their renewals done on time because of Secretary Benson’s refusal to reopen offices for same-day services,” Johnson said. “By extending the expiration date for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, we can ensure Michigan drivers don’t getting punished with a $200 ticket or a late fee because they couldn’t get an appointment at the secretary of state in time.”

Some transactions still need to be done in-person at a branch office, including getting a new driver’s license, transferring a title, or other services.

Johnson isn’t opposed to offering service via appointments but wants other options as well.

“The secretary of state created this issue and she needs to fix it,” Johnson said. “The decision to end same-day services and go to an appointment-only system does not work when people still can’t get an appointment for months in many areas.”

In return, Benson blamed the Legislature for not extending licenses and registrations fast enough. 

The vote is the latest of a months-long feud between Benson, a Democrat, and the GOP-dominated Legislature, who blame one another for a 14-month backlog in the SOS office after all 131 branch officers were shuttered to walk-in service in response to COVID-19.

The GOP-led Senate voted 25-10 for the main bills, garnering the support of six Democrats. The vote came two days after Benson said she's adding 350,000 appointment slots through Sept. 30 and activating branch greeters to help people make appointments in response to a months-long backlog.

If a Michigander couldn’t snag a next-day appointment, they would have had to wait months to transfer a title and other services. In Lansing, all branches were booked through August before Benson added hundreds of thousands of new appointments.

"I want to be abundantly clear," Benson said Tuesday. "We’re making improvements in our department in the absence of any support from the Legislature. We’re going it alone, but we don’t have to."

In April, Benson said she wanted to end walk-in SOS appointments.

Benson pushed for a bill aiming to give $25 million of federal COVID-19 relief money to clear the backlog by hiring 200 workers and paying overtime to extend operating hours to deliver 210,000 new appointments through Sept. 30.

But Eric Ventimiglia, the executive director of the conservative Michigan Rising Action, told The Center Square that Benson creating over 300,000 appointments without additional funding shows the problem is governing, not funding.

“The fact that Benson made 350,000 appointments appear out of thin air shows that this is a failure in governing, not a lack of financial resources,” Ventimiglia wrote in an email. “These problems lay solely at the feet of Benson and her failed appointment only system. Benson’s incompetence has led Michiganders to face skyrocketing wait times to complete vital but routine transactions, such as obtaining a license and receiving a handicap placard. 

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.