Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is trying to make people "drive further and further, just to receive assistance," according to state Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, who says his fellow Republican should focus her attention instead on "bringing services closer to the people." Kahn's criticisms were directed at the Dept. of State's ongoing Branch Office Modernization Program, which aims to save scarce taxpayer dollars by consolidating branches into fewer, but more technically-savvy and customer-friendly, locations. For Kahn's district, this means the loss of a branch in Frankenmuth and enhanced services at another in Saginaw — a decision that Kahn calls "a mistake," but that Land's office defines as "fiscal responsibility."
Though Kahn asserts that the plan "makes no sense" because "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," it would appear that very few customers would be required to endure these inconveniences. Most can renew license tabs online or through the mail and voter registration matters can be accomplished at township and city halls.
Land notes that in comparison to 2007, online and mail renewals in fiscal 2009 resulted in 2 million fewer trips to branch offices. Additionally, the expanded "Super!Center" and "Plus" offices being created by the Modernization Program provide later service hours on Wednesdays (until 7 p.m.), Saturday hours for the Super!Centers, self-serve stations and other enhancements designed to expedite the visits for those customers who still need to make the trip. These extra services went unmentioned by two other GOP state senators — Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Muskegon, and Randy Richardville, R-Monroe — who also blasted the Modernization Program, claiming that it would result in both longer drives and longer wait times in their districts.
Modernization has been ongoing since 2004. This new round of consolidations would bring the number of branches down to 131, from 173 a decade ago. But within the remaining 131 branches, taxpayers will soon have six Super!Centers and 38 PLUS offices to choose from. (Five Super!Centers and 22 PLUS offices are already in operation.) The Dept. of State proclaims that they have "reduced staffing levels by 20 percent through attrition."
Land notes that Saturday hours and other perks of the enhanced offices have been "extremely popular" where they have been implemented. But the program has been a frequent subject of Legislative criticism, even though nearly all lawmakers have claimed to support the notion of cost-conscious state agencies. And leaving aside the Republican senators criticizing the current phase of the plan, the overwhelming majority of the opposition to the department's budget-conscious ways has come from Democrats.
In 2007, the Democrat-controlled Michigan House approved a bill that would have re-written the Dept. of State funding rules so as to make branch consolidations more difficult. Current GOP Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, and Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, (who was then a member of the House) were two of just three Republicans to vote with the united Democratic caucus in favor of obstructing the Modernization Program. (The third Republican is no longer in the Legislature.)
On Dec. 18, 2009, the Michigan House again set in motion an effort to block branch office consolidation when it approved House Bill 5686. This time, 58 Democrats and one Republican voted to thwart part of the Modernization Program. The lone Republican was John Walsh, R-Livonia. The Republican-controlled Senate has not yet considered the bill.
Another attempt was made on Feb. 3, 2010, when the Michigan House of Representatives voted 65-41 in favor of House Bill 5649. Michiganvotes.org states that this bill would "restrict the ability of the Secretary of State to reorganize branch office operations, including closing lesser-used offices, by reorganizing the appropriations line item for its branch office funding from a single line item to numerous specific line items."
According to the Gongwer News Services (www.gongwer.com — subscription required), a spokesperson for Ms. Land said this bill interferes with the Secretary of State's "constitutional right" to operate branch offices most efficiently in a tough budget situation.
Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, and Rep. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, joined 63 Democrats voting for this bill.
Rep. Martin Griffin, D-Jackson, voted with 41 Republicans against the bill, and in accordance with the Secretary of State's advice.
Two of Land's loudest Democrat critics during the current round of Modernization are from East Lansing: Sen. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Mark Meadows. The downtown East Lansing branch and another four miles away in downtown Lansing are scheduled to be closed after the department creates a new Super!Center in a shopping plaza that abuts the MSU Campus, sits next to U.S. 127 and is about halfway between the two conventional branches being consolidated.
But neither lawmaker was pleased with Ingham County getting its first Super!Center if it meant closing two of the inferior conventional facilities nearby.
"The Secretary of State's plan will put a giant wall between our students and their ability to participate in our democracy," noted Meadows in a joint press release. He did not mention that students could still change their voting residency and register to vote at the East Lansing City Hall, also just a couple of blocks from the Spartan campus.
Meadows was East Lansing's mayor from 1997 until 2005, and he was a member of its city council until 2008.
Whitmer observed that "The current East Lansing branch is the only option for many Michigan State University students who don't have a mode of transportation." She did not point out that the student rate for a round-trip bus ticket to the downtown Lansing branch is currently $1.20 and that more than a dozen bus routes run alongside or directly serve the campus during all business hours.
The release blasting the Modernization Program also notes that Sen. Whitmer acquired a law degree from Michigan State.
Having been approved by the House of Representatives, House Bill 5686 is now in the Michigan Senate's Committee on Local, Urban and State Affairs. Sen. VanWoerkom is the chair. House Bill 5649 has been sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks.
The contact information for all lawmakers can be found here.
An online version of this story, with hyperlinks to more bill information and the roll call votes, is at www.MichCapCon.com/12060.