Michigan lawmakers have discovered something new to tax: the “points” on a person’s driving record. Under a bill sponsored by Sen. Jud Gilbert, R–Algonac, drivers who accumulate seven points within a two-year period will be assessed an annual $100 “driver responsibility fee,” plus another $50 for each additional point. Failure to pay the point tax will lead to license suspension.
In addition, a host of new taxes will be imposed for various infractions. The more serious the infraction, the larger the surcharge. For example, drunk driving or fleeing a police officer will result in a $2,000 surtax. The tax will apply also to accidentally hitting a construction worker, police officer, or farmer. The bill will not prevent these offenses, of course, but will turn them into profit centers.
And minor offenses aren’t overlooked. For example, a motorist unable to find his or her proof of insurance when requested by a police officer — even if they were, in fact, insured — would be assessed $300.
The new tax has been sold as a way to deter repeat violators. But what’s really happened is that lawmakers, looking for a rationale for raising taxes, simply found one that few lawmakers would have the guts to oppose. After all, who wants to risk being accused of not caring about driving safety?
The public safety fig leaf slipped a bit when, following passage in the Senate, the bill was referred not to the House Transportation Committee, as one might expect, but to the Committee on Appropriations, which decides where all the money will be spent.
It slipped a bit more when it came to light that the higher fines would be classified as administrative “higher responsibility fees” assessed by the Secretary of State, rather than as penalties imposed by courts. What this means is that lawmakers want to circumvent state law — which dedicates money from traffic infractions to libraries or local governments. Instead, they want this money to go to Lansing, where lawmakers can use it for their own purposes.
Besides the fact that the new law isn’t really about traffic safety, there are several problems with it. Part of the rationale for dedicating this money to libraries and local governments is to avoid creating a financial incentive for the state police to issue more tickets. The driving point tax law is devoid of such scruples. 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 likely 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 would otherwise 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.
In short, the new law will create an incentive to write more tickets. Those who rack up more time on the road would be more vulnerable, as would drivers in already ticket-happy jurisdictions. There could also be a disparate impact on urban drivers, who may encounter police more frequently than average. It will 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.
Michigan cities appear to be ratcheting up ticket writing to make up for state revenue-sharing cuts. Some local governments have reportedly admitted 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.
Traffic fines are ordinarily levied by judges, within guidelines set by law. These huge new penalties will increase some fines by 300 to 500 per cent, 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.
(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.)