An example of good government has quietly brewed amidst the state budget blundering of the last half-dozen years; the Michigan Secretary of State has implemented a plan that has reduced the cost and number of its branch offices while improving service. Tellingly, the proposal is referred to not as "downsizing," but optimistically as modernization. And there is a promising plan to continue down this lower-cost road to the future. Regretfully, a bipartisan collection of state lawmakers has approved legislation that would jettison this progress in favor of protecting the parochial desires of specific communities instead of the needs of the general taxpayer.
Funding for Secretary of State branch offices has increased by less than half the rate of inflation since fiscal 2000, and total staffing has fallen 6.1 percent. There were 173 branches open in 2000, and the first wave of modernization in 2004 reduced this total to 153. Despite the reduction in resources, the Secretary of State reports shorter wait times and expanded weekday and weekend service hours at the remaining facilities.
The magic behind this productivity jump has been the implementation of new technologies and fresh thinking, such as using the internet and self-service stations to get visitors out of lines and on their way. One million annual trips to branch offices — in a state with 7.1 million drivers — were eliminated by creating a permanent license plate for trailers. Other annual trips have been wiped out entirely by encouraging the renewal of automotive plates through the mail or via the internet. The centerpiece has been consolidating branches into what are called "PLUS" offices and "Super!Centers," which offer expanded hours and services closer to population centers. The 2004 modernization decreased total branch offices by 20, but also expanded 23 of the remaining facilities into "PLUS" offices and 5 into "Super!Centers."
The Secretary of State wants to close nine more branches for 2007, while at the same time creating 10 more "PLUS" offices and one more "Super!Center" from those that remain. This would leave Michigan with 144 facilities where residents could register their vehicles and renew their licenses — roughly the same as in New York, a state with more than twice the number of drivers. California, with more than three times the number of drivers as Michigan, has just 173 locations for registration renewals and 73 locations for license renewals.
On Aug. 8, 2007, three Republican state representatives joined 53 Democrats in approving House Bill 4492, which would re-write the funding formula for the branch offices so as to prohibit the closures. This followed a local rally against a proposed closing in the Saginaw area that drew 200 protesters, including State Rep. Andy Coulouris (D-Saginaw) who promised "pizza and sodas" if the protesters would repeat their tactics in Lansing. About 50 did exactly that.
A prohibition on closing any branch offices was later written into a multi-departmental appropriation bill that passed the state senate, demonstrating that both chambers of the Legislature could later agree to stop the modernization plan.
Opponents of the plan state a variety of dubious concerns. One lawmaker implied that it was an effort to disenfranchise "minority voters," despite the fact that every Michigan voter can register at their local township or city clerk’s office, and no one votes at a Secretary of State office. Another said the state should discourage policies that lead to "urban sprawl;" an unlikely result while Michigan has one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the nation and a struggling real estate market. There was an allegation that removing the Milan branch would devastate the town, as if the purpose of a Secretary of State branch is to generate local commerce in Milan rather than provide a particular government function as cost effectively as possible.
This effort to impede the rightsizing of the state is a textbook example of why lawmakers find it so difficult to trim expenses, despite ample and available opportunities. It is a "squeaky wheel gets grease" problem. Legislators too often heed the vocal yet tiny numbers of people who personally and substantially benefit from excessive government. This is true whether the issue is overly-lavish public pensions, privatization of government jobs, or just the shuttering of a superfluous Secretary of State office. Smarter spending will require lawmakers to stop fueling the squeaky wheels with "pizza and sodas" and start working for the people who pay for the grease.
Kenneth M. Braun is a policy analyst specializing in fiscal and budgetary issues for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.