A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Opposition Grows to Dept. of State Modernization Plan

Seven GOP join latest effort to block budget savings

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While nearly all of the Republican lawmakers in Lansing have been generically very eager to proclaim their desire to cut the cost of state government — and for reductions in the cost of the state workforce in particular — some have been voting down the Secretary of State's effort to actually implement a specific plan to do so when it impacts their interests.

On Feb. 24, the Michigan House took yet another shot at slowing down Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land's ongoing "Branch Office Modernization Program." Making use of limited funding, yet providing expanded hours and more access to time-saving technology has been the stated goal of the program since its inception in 2004. But it has been frequently opposed by some lawmakers because some of its cost savings come from closing the conventional "brick and mortar" branch offices in their districts.

This most recent effort to stymie the modernization plan, House Bill 5811, was approved on a vote of 71-36, despite objections of and formal opposition from the Department of State. Though blocking modernization has mostly been a Democrat-supported effort, seven Republicans were among the 71 "yes" votes.

Michiganvotes.org defines the bill as such:

"[Would] impose a moratorium on cost-cutting closures of Secretary of State offices until certain bureaucratic procedures specified in the bill are adopted. These would require balancing cost savings, public convenience and access to public transportation systems when closures are considered, and require that advance notice be given to local governments and the Legislature."

The modernization program has recently become a favorite target for the Democrat-controlled Michigan House. HB 5811 was the second bill voted on by the House just in the month of February aimed at stalling Land's program, and the third since December 2009 (see: www.MichCapCon.com/12060). Interestingly, HB 5811 received more votes — and more GOP votes — than either of the previous two attempts. All three bills are now pending before the Michigan Senate.

Renewing license plate tabs is one of the main reasons that most Michigan residents interact with a Department of State office. This was once an arduous process involving taking a number at a branch office — usually only during business hours — and then waiting patiently. But today, self-service machines at 27 branches allow Michigan motorists to renew their plates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on their own schedule. Machines at 32 other locations offer the same service during business hours and after, albeit not at every hour of the day or night.

Demonstrating the popularity of the self-serve option, Land's office says these machines were used for 224,000 tab renewals last year — a 70 percent increase over the previous year — and that 11 more machines will be added in the very near future. Just 30,000 renewals using the self-serve machines took place five years ago.

"Self-Service Stations have saved thousands of hours of our customers' time," Land said. "They remain an important part of this department's commitment to providing efficient, quality service while overcoming budgetary challenges."

Doing business such as tab renewals online or through the mail rather than going to the old-line brick and mortar branch offices has also become a popular option that saves time and money for all involved. "For example," notes a news release from the department, "there were 2 million fewer branch office transactions in fiscal year 2009 than in fiscal year 2007."

Empowering hundreds of thousands of citizens to do their Secretary of State business on their own means much less need for so many conventional branch offices and for the employees who staff them. Land's office notes that this allows her department to stretch its limited dollars, claiming that total branch staffing is now 20 percent lighter as a result of the modernization plan. And, happily enough for her state employee workforce, all of this staff reduction has taken place "through attrition."

Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, is a Republican who voted for HB 5811 and for both of the other bills that would establish roadblocks in front of the modernization plan. Along with Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, he collected petitions from area residents to protest a planned consolidation of the Frankenmuth office with one in Saginaw, because consolidation would result in the elimination of the Frankenmuth location.

"It's disappointing the Secretary of State's office failed to recognize how important its branch office is to the Frankenmuth community," said Horn in a media release to a local TV station in January.

A few weeks earlier, he told the Saginaw News: "The secretary of state's office needs to throw out the computer models and go eyeball to eyeball with the people they serve in Frankenmuth, the senior citizens and farmers who rely on the Frankenmuth branch for important state services."

Kahn's office added the following statement:

"Closing the Frankenmuth office and consolidating it with a branch in Saginaw Township to offer 'enhanced' services makes no sense when the people of Frankenmuth will have to drive more than 40 miles round trip every time they register to vote or renew their license plate tabs. This just doesn't make sense.

"While many service improvements have been made in recent years, the secretary of state should stay focused on bringing services closer to the people — not making them drive further and further just to receive assistance. Shutting down this office is a mistake."

Leon Drolet, a former state representative and now the head of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, has little patience for Republican lawmakers who talk tough on spending but then refuse to support what he says are reasonable cost reductions.

"Nobody's life is depending upon renewing their license plate in person," he said, noting the online, by-mail and self-serve options. "Everybody is willing to make cuts when it's somebody else's district, but a statesman is the one who is willing to cut their own."

Of their priorities, he accused the GOP defectors of being "Politicians first, [Republican] partisans second ... and defenders of the taxpayer only a very distant third."

The Michiganvotes.org roll call for House Bill 5811 is below.

“Modernization Plan” - click to enlarge

Contact information for all lawmakers is located here.

The original version of this story was posted online on April 9, 2010.

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