Benson seeks $25M to address backlog at SOS branch offices

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2020, file photo, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks in Detroit. In an interview with The Associated Press, Benson says politicians lying about fraud in the 2020 presidential election, Republican efforts to make voting more difficult and the continued spread of disinformation leave her deeply concerned about the future of American democracy. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, file)
FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2020, file photo, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks in Detroit. In an interview with The Associated Press, Benson says politicians lying about fraud in the 2020 presidential election, Republican efforts to make voting more difficult and the continued spread of disinformation leave her deeply concerned about the future of American democracy. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, file) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

LANSING, Mich. – Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Democratic lawmakers want $25 million to hire more staff and pay overtime to expand appointments and hours at branch offices facing a backlog of transactions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The spending, if approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature, would add 500,000 appointment slots from July through September, the end of the fiscal year. The funds would come from federal COVID-19 relief aid.

The logjam was 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 for two months.

“This would eliminate the backlog and free up advance and next-day appointments for anyone who wants them, getting us closer to a point when the supply of in-person transactions our offices provide meets the needs of all of our residents,” Benson said.

The Democrat has come under scrutiny, particularly from GOP legislators, for making permanent an appointment-only system to conduct business such as renewing licenses or transferring vehicle titles. Next-day appointments fill up quickly, and other slots can be months in the future.

The system began because of the coronavirus. Benson has said it is far superior to making walk-in customers wait potentially hours in line.

Rep. Julie Brixie, a Democrat from Ingham County's Meridian Township, said legislators were warned that continually extending the expiration date of driver's licenses, state IDs and vehicle registrations would create a backlog.

“It's our job... to implement these solutions to deliver the additional customer services the residents of Michigan need coming out of COVID,” she said.

But House Republicans appear unlikely to allocate additional funding unless Benson again allows walk-in visits.

“I'm not interested in throwing more money at the secretary of state," said Rep. Steve Johnson of Wayland, who chairs a committee that that held hearings on the appointment-only system.

“If the secretary of state truly wants to eliminate the backlog of residents who haven’t been able to access branch offices, she should reopen them — fully and with no appointment required,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert of Lowell.