As Michigan lawmakers scramble to find revenue to sustain current spending, the Senate has discovered something new to tax: the “points” on a person’s driving record. Under Senate Bill 509, sponsored by Sen. Jud Gilbert, R–Algonac, drivers who accumulate seven points within a two-year period would be assessed an annual $100 “driver responsibility fee,” plus another $50 for each additional point.

Predictably, the new tax is being sold as a way to deter repeat violators. But Michigan citizens should be under no illusions as to what is really happening here: Lawmakers looking for a rationale for raising taxes have simply hit upon one they think will put opponents on the defensive. After all, who is going to stand up and oppose a plan for deterring casualties caused by drivers with horrific driving records?

But the point tax wouldn’t remove dangerous drivers from the road. It would just charge them more. And it could also lead to a host of unintended consequences for ordinary drivers as well.

Failure to pay the point tax would lead to license suspension. (Another proposal would increase the cost of license reinstatement.) The bill’s supporters contend that the new fines won’t lead to more people driving without a license, but that is nonetheless likely.

The legislation proposes much larger surcharges for serious violations. Drunk driving or fleeing a police officer would result in a $2,000 surtax. This tax would apply also to accidentally hitting a construction worker, police officer, or farmer. The bill would not prevent these offenses, but would turn them into profit centers.

A motorist who could not find his or her proof of insurance form when requested by a police officer would be assessed $300. A judge might waive the regular fine for someone with a reasonable excuse, but the assessment still must be paid to the state. The bill does at least authorize convenient installment payments.

The point tax would fall unevenly on Michigan citizens. Those who must rack up more time on the road would be more vulnerable, as would drivers in ticket-happy jurisdictions. There could also be a disparate impact on urban and minority drivers, who may encounter police more frequently than average. It would also fall more heavily on those with lower incomes, who may accumulate more points simply because they lack the resources to fight a ticket in court.

By labeling the higher fines administrative “driver responsibility fees” assessed by the Secretary of State, rather than as penalties imposed by courts, sponsors hope to circumvent existing state law, which dedicates traffic fines to county libraries or local governments. Part of the rationale for the existing formula is to avoid creating a financial incentive for the state police to issue more tickets. Although the new “fees” may not go directly to law enforcement, it is not hard to imagine police agencies reaching an “understanding” with legislators: Greater point-tax revenues flowing to Lansing will be rewarded with higher appropriations for law enforcement.

But not all the money may make it to Lansing. Motorists facing $300 fines are more likely to fight citations that take them over the seven-point threshold. Given a potentially larger workload, to keep the courts moving (and court-cost revenue flowing), prosecutors are more likely to make deals. They could allow motorists to plead to no-point violations, dodging the point tax but paying a larger fine to the local court.

The point tax comes at a time when Michigan cities appear to be ratcheting up ticket-writing to make up for state revenue-sharing cuts. Some local governments have admitted in recent press reports that they depend on fine revenue to balance the books. The annual take is reportedly $1.5 million in Lansing and $4 million in Jackson County. “Violations represent a revenue-generating stream,” said Mount Clemens City Commissioner David Herrington in a Macomb Daily article.

Traffic fines are ordinarily levied by judges, within guidelines set by law. These huge new penalties would increase some fines by 300 to 500 percent, with no discretion available to judges. Attaching so much money to traffic tickets could exert a corrupting influence on traffic-safety efforts and on Michigan’s legal system. Governments do not need more inducement to operate speed traps.

Motorists shouldn’t think they’ll escape this tax by keeping their point total low. If this new tax takes effect, don’t be surprised if future legislatures, alleging a traffic-safety “crisis,” apply the tax to the fifth point, or the third — or the first.

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(Jack McHugh is a legislative policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich., and editor of MichiganVotes.org, a service that catalogues legislation before the Michigan Legislature. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)