LANSING, Mich. — From pandemic-related closures to adopting an appointment-only system, the virtual waiting lines to get an appointment at a Secretary of State office are growing, but two bills introduced in Lansing Tuesday aim to eliminate that backlog with COVID relief funds.
“The pandemic greatly impacted our office’s capacity to provide in-person services, exposures to the virus for staff to stay home, and offices to temporarily close and expiration extensions created a backlog of resident transactions that are now all due right now, at the same time,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said during a press conference Tuesday.
Democratic state lawmakers Rep. Stephanie Young (D–Detroit) and Rep. Julie Brixie (D–East Lansing) are proposing to use $25 million in COVID relief money to pay tens of thousands of hours in overtime and hire more than 200 full-time staff at SOS branches through the end of September.
“COVID caused the backlog we face right now, which is why our bills would utilize federal COVID relief funding from the American Rescue Plan to fund these overtime hours and deliver the customer service our residents need and deserve,” Young said.
“One of the most common complaints we've heard about Secretary of State branches over the past several decades is that the branches are understaffed. Residents go in and they see all the vacant windows that are not staffed. What residents often don't know is that many of the branches were built when the Secretary of State's budget was nearly double what it is today," Brixie said.
Young and Brixie say 500,000 more appointments will be created if the bills pass soon.
In an interview with FOX 17, Secretary Benson says the Legislature under-funding the department for years has in part created the issues we see today.
“This is a result of decades of cuts to our office; the amount of people needing services is more than the amount of transaction slots that are available,” Benson said.
She’s also calling for the Legislature to waive late fees during this time, while the department looks at ways to fix backlogs for issues that have to be resolved in person, like title transfers. Benson says they are exploring things like priority-based appointments.
“This is a challenging moment we're in, but we're going to get through it, and we are going to continue to listen to our residents and find ways to address particular and specific transaction needs,” Benson said.
Republican lawmakers meanwhile are pushing for a return to walk-in availability. “This is about satisfying as many people as we can with services the state provides, and the fact remains that some people like to come in for help, even if they have to wait a little bit. They aren’t being helped right now. They are part of a massive backlog, and we must have flexibility with them in need. A hybrid approach makes sense. To not even offer it doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of customer service,” State Rep. Jack O’Malley (R–Lake Ann) said.
The Secretary of State is reminding people that even with the backlog, people can schedule their visits a day beforehand; each day the office releases thousands of new appointments at 8 a.m. and 12 p.m.