Benson defends appointment system amid legislative scrutiny
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is defending her decision to stick with appointment-only visits to branch offices after the coronavirus pandemic, amid pushback from lawmakers who say people should again be able to go without an appointment.
Half of all appointments are next-day appointments — an option for drivers with urgent business such as renewing an expiring license or transferring a vehicle title. Benson concedes they fill up fast but contends the system, while “not perfect,” is better than residents having to potentially wait hours in line, as they did before COVID-19 struck. Critics note that other appointments are months in the future.
Benson is pledging to add appointment slots — which are booked online or by phone — saying fewer staff will be out sick and fewer offices will be closed as infections continue to subside. The state is on track, in July, to implement a new law that requires in-person visits for new license and ID photos every 12 years instead of eight.
“That will dramatically reduce the demand for office visits for a number of years,” Benson, a Democrat, told the Republican-led House Oversight Committee this past week. She said the department is continuing to work through a backlog caused by a 13-month grace period for driver’s license and ID renewals in the pandemic, which has caused higher-than-normal demand for branch visits.
About 60% of transactions are done online, by mail or at self-service stations — up from about 25% in 2018. Benson said she wants to get to 75% because “that’s where we’ll have the supply and demand match, so that whenever anyone wants to come to an office they’re able to do so at a time that works for their schedule and be in and out.”
Rep. Steve Johnson, a Wayland Republican who chairs the panel, was among members in both parties who suggested that walk-in customers be allowed. GOP legislators in both the House and Senate have proposed spending bills that seek to require the resumption of non-appointment services. Their fate is uncertain as negotiations begin with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“You’re getting the worst of both worlds here. Because of COVID, because we’ve extended a lot of things, you have this backlog and you want to try these new ideas. How about until we get those new ideas implemented, we bring in the walk-in option until we get there?” Johnson said.
Benson said that would not work because staff would be diverted to walk-in traffic, reducing appointment slots and leaving people “standing in line, waiting for hours.” Residents who cannot get a next-day appointment — they open at 8 a.m. and noon the day before — should keeping trying because they eventually will, she said.
“I represent three counties, and they want the offices open — at least until we can get this under control,” said Republican Rep. Michele Hoitenga of Manton.
Rep. David LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat, said he would rather sit and wait to “signal my urgency” as as long he had a “good book and a decent breakfast.” Benson countered that “it doesn’t have to be that way.”
She urged lawmakers to help the state break free from an “inefficient, broken model.” If legislators increased, to $15, an $11 fee that companies such as LexisNexis pay for a driving and vehicle record, the department would have an additional $8 million to hire more employees, expand hours and open mobile offices, she said.
A recently completed technology upgrade has made more transactions available online or at self-service kiosks. She urged the passage of bills that would let driver’s license applicants take a written test online or through third parties such as driving schools — instead of at a branch — and allow license and ID photos to be submitted remotely when renewing a regular license.
She said she is considering whether to restore weeknight and Saturday hours.
“All the data I’ve seen shows that things are moving in the right direction. We’re just not there yet,” Benson said.
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