OPINION

Benson is speeding up appointments, but will the Legislature assist her?

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Last week, I wrote how Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was floating in political hot water. If she doesn’t clear up her backlog of folks needing new license plates, forcing people to drive illegally, Benson could be a one-term secretary of state.

This week, Benson announced moves to drain her COVID backlog by Sept. 30, if not before.

But before we dig deeper into those reforms, let me make a couple things clear from last week’s column.

First, nobody should be driving around without a license plate or expired tabs. It is illegal. You can be fined at least $200 for doing it.

Next, the secretary of state offers a certain number of same-day appointments at www.michigan.gov/sos. They go fast, and if you don’t get one on Tuesday, you can try again Wednesday or Thursday.

Third, while branch offices were closed 10 weeks last spring as the pandemic was kicking into gear, there are more reasons behind the backlog. Select branch offices were shut down for a couple weeks due to a COVID positive diagnosis from a customer or staff person.

Also, the Legislature used a hard-and-fast March 31 deadline, as opposed to a rolling deadline, by which people had to clear up whatever outstanding secretary of state business. This created a crush of end-of-March, early April business.

And, finally, Benson took over an office amid a culture of Republican secretaries of state who put a premium on closing officers and laying off staff. The moves pushed the public toward on-line services online, in theory, reduces the need for union labor to stand on their feet and serve the public face-to-face each day.

Only offering appointments and not walk-in service is playing to the frustrations of drivers, who don’t like sitting for a couple hours to get a new driver license picture — but they like waiting three months for an appointment even less.

So, the new news is this: Benson announced this week she’s having the state spend 10 minutes per customer as opposed to 20 minutes. That should free up 350,000 spots in line by Sept. 30, she said.

Also, if all you need is a placard showing you’re disabled, you can visit a branch office and the greeter will hook you up, if you brought the corrected identification. If there’s another service you need and you show up to a branch office without an appointment, a greeter will tell you if staff could see you in that moment.

If not, the greeter will help the customer set up an appointment.

Benson estimates a 25% increase in the number of people the Secretary of State’s Office can see for vehicle-related services in the months ahead under this plan.

That’s what Benson can do by herself, but there’s more she could do if the Republican-led Legislature is willing to help.

Benson would love the Legislature to give her $25 million in COVID-19 relief money to cover the costs of new staff and extended officers. Her dream is for any citizens to pick an appointment that fits into his or her schedule. 

She doesn’t want to stick people into an oddly timed appointment in August because that’s the soonest they can get in. 

However, lawmakers may not give her one additional cent if she doesn’t open some branch offices to more walk-in traffic. Benson hates the idea. She doesn’t want her name attached to two-or-three-hour delays inside a branch office with an armed security office, keeping the peace.

You can’t blame her for abandoning that dreaded ol’ take-a-number system at branch offices, particular since it did not work well in ending people’s waits for services.

Yet, when dealing with the Legislature, compromise — not demanding action — often wins the day. If Benson needs to let in some foot traffic in order to get lawmakers to squeeze some money her way, she may need to swallow her pride and do it.

Her re-electability may count on it.

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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