When she was a state representative in 2003, Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson was one of a minority to vote against a law that imposed stiff financial penalties on so-called "bad drivers." Though it was advertised as a public safety measure, Johnson and others believe the law was really designed to rake in more money for state government. In addition to harsher fines for objectively dangerous violations such as impaired and reckless driving, the "Driver Responsibility Fee" law also applies additional fees for those with conduct on their record that isn't as clearly dangerous, such as multiple speeding tickets and failure to produce proof of a license or insurance when asked to do so by a police officer.
The Michigan Secretary of State is the agency that is required to collect the fees. Johnson is now one of the Republican candidates seeking to become Michigan's next Secretary of State. If she wins the job, she too might be compelled by the law to collect those fees that she voted against.
But, then again, she might not. Today, even former supporters of the bad-driver fees are conceding that Ruth Johnson and the others who voted against the 2003 law may have been right to do so. Among them is state Sen. Cameron Brown, R-Fawn River Twp, who is also seeking the GOP nomination for Secretary of State.
In 2003, during his first year in the Senate, Brown voted for the bad-driver fees. But now at the end of his last term in the Senate, he has introduced 2009 Senate Bill 127, which would repeal the two-year, $200 annual fee for driving without proof of insurance and a two-year, $150 annual fee for driving without proof of a driver license. The bill would also reduce payments on those with outstanding fee balances from all of the law's provisions and allow them a more lenient payment period.
In addition to much stiffer penalties on reckless or substance-abusing drivers, the original law also imposes a $100 fee on those who rack up at least seven points on their driver license in a two-year period and a $50 fee for each point thereafter. SB 127 does not repeal these fees.
Last week, the bill received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and is getting a warm reception from the committee chair, Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland. Kuipers, like Brown, is another lawmaker who voted for the fees in 2003 and now appears to be rethinking his position.
"I have to acknowledge an undeniable truth: Michigan's so-called driver responsibility fee has been a failure," said Brown in his testimony for the bill, according to the Gongwer Report (www.Gongwer.com, subscription only). "They are excessive and punitive. ... They were among the worst decisions our class of lawmakers have voted on and enacted into law."
Brown is also quoted by Gongwer saying that he would support repealing the entire 2003 law, but that his current bill was just a first step.
Speaking to the MIRS newsletter (www.Mirsnews.com, subscription only), Kuipers indicated that he wants to send the bill to the full Senate for a vote when he knows he has enough support in his committee.
Increasing revenue to fund government, rather than enhancing public safety, was a large motivation for imposing the driver responsibility fees back in 2003. Today, more than $225 million in fees are assessed because of it, though far less than this is actually collected.
"The state wants to charge bad drivers penalties that will fund $2,500 Merit Scholarships for high schoolers," explained Detroit Free Press columnist Matt Helms on July 17, 2003, in a commentary that was otherwise supportive of creating the extra fees. "That's the proposal supported by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the leadership of the Republican-led Legislature."
Those pushing the fees as purely a public safety measure argued that stiff penalties for those driving without licenses would be more likely to remove dangerous drivers from the road because dangerous drivers were those most likely to have their licenses taken away in the first place. A similar case was made regarding those who did not have insurance and those acquiring seven or more points on their license during any two-year period.
But, according to Gongwer, Berrien County Circuit Court Judge Charles LaSata told the committee that his courtroom experience tells him otherwise. Testifying in favor of SB 127, LaSata said that arraignments in his court for defendants who have suspended licenses was still "not unusual," despite the supposed deterrent of the fees, and that people were willingly running the risk of additional annual fees because they had to "get to work or get their child to school."
As a Republican state representative during the summer of 2003, LaSata voted in favor of the driver responsibility fees.
"I contributed to the problem," he confessed to the committee seven years later, according to MIRS.
Some critics of the law noted in 2003 and continue to point out today that it tends to punish poverty as much as unsafe driving.
According to Gongwer, Michigan's state insurance consumer advocate reminded the committee looking at SB 127 that lacking insurance is not necessarily a sign of a bad driver: "If you can't afford insurance, what makes you think you can afford the fee?"
Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, also voted for the law in 2003. Today, according to MIRS, he notes that these fees are often mentioned when he knocks on doors in the less affluent neighborhoods in his district.
On Dec. 27, 2003, just before the law took effect, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land was quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as saying, "To get a 50-percent collection is tough" due to the socio-economic status of the population often being ensnared by the fees.
"It is a difficult population to collect from," said Land spokeswoman Kelly Chesney in the same article.
The Secretary of State's pessimism in 2003 was vindicated. Today, failing the proof of insurance test ensnares 202,000 motorists per year and the failure to provide a license penalty pulls in another 24,000 violators. But the average collection rate for all of the bad-driver fees is just 53.5 percent, according to the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency.
At this rate, the state takes in just $120 million of the $225 million of the fees assessed each year. According to the SFA, all but $8.5 million of the $120 million is deposited in the state's general fund budget — the largest pot of discretionary cash available to lawmakers.
Implementing SB 127 and thus removing the annual fees for no insurance and no driver license would reduce the fees being assessed on Michigan residents by more than $45 million per year, according to the SFA. But this would cost the state only $23.6 million of that, because of the low collection rate.
"It is unfair," said Johnson, when asked why she bucked the Republican leadership and a majority of her fellow Republicans by voting against the fees. "It was bad law then and it is bad law now."
She says the real purpose of the law was and remains to "raise revenue and find a pocket to get into."
To her, the public safety argument was always just an excuse: "They always find a 'good reason.'"
The MichiganVotes.org roll call vote for the 2003 law that imposed the "driver responsibility fees" is noted below.
Lawmakers VOTING TO IMPOSE 'driver responsibility fees'
Lawmakers VOTING AGAINST 'driver responsibility fees'
Lawmakers who DID NOT VOTE
|Rep. Hart (R)||Rep. Phillips (D)||Rep. Taub (R)|
|Sen. Johnson (R)||Sen. Sikkema (R)|