Being a good corporate citizen in the Great Lakes State means doing things that customers, employees, investors, and business partners expect to see – like operating in an environmentally sustainable manner, providing philanthropic support for nonprofit groups, and being a welcoming, inclusive place to work. It also means getting involved in elevating the economy and the quality of life for all kinds of people, beyond those involved with the company.
Two years ago, one of those issues surfaced at the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board, co-chaired by Dave Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer at DTE Energy. It involved Driver Responsibility Fees (DRFs), and DTE Energy got involved the solution.
Implemented in 2003 to bolster state revenue, DRFs layered penalties on top of fines for various driving offenses. The fees were up to $500 per year for people who accumulated several points on their driving record, as well as additional annual fines up to $1,000 per year on those caught for greater offenses like driving on a suspended license or driving under the influence. The fees ended when points expired after two years. Failing to pay resulted in a suspended license. And once a license was suspended it cost another $125 to reinstate. Drivers mired in the DRF zone then faced massive auto insurance cost increases – and this in Michigan, where auto insurance rates have been the most expensive in the nation for five consecutive years.
Those who could afford to pay their way out of DRFs did so – and the state got about $100 million in revenue. But most couldn’t pay the fines and about $627 million in unpaid DRFs accumulated among almost 350,000 drivers, among them 76,000 Detroiters. It was a punishing cycle of debt among those who could least afford it.
The fallout got worse. Poor driving records, crushing fees, and soaring auto insurance rates – additionally influenced by credit scores – excluded people from being hired. Employers statewide witnessed a shrinking pool of workers attributed to those unable to legally drive to work – or to take kids to school, or drive to the grocery store in a state with traditionally poor public transportation options.
The Mayor’s Workforce Development Board and the regional CEO group recognized DRFs as a serious barrier to employment, and DTE responded.
“Part of ensuring the city, region and state prosper with a healthy, thriving workforce is identifying barriers to employment and finding solutions,” said Meador. “DRFs made no sense at all. The only impact the fees were having was ensuring many people would never drive again, which made it hard to find work. Eliminating DRFs altogether and erasing the prior fees was the right thing to do for the people of Michigan.”
DTE joined numerous other employers and organizations like the Michigan District Judges Association to make state legislators aware of the DRF problem and work on a solution.
“Many lawmakers in both parties and representing areas throughout Michigan had heard that DRFs weren’t working – it just took someone to surface the issue,” said Rodney Cole, DTE’s director of state government affairs. “Bipartisan support followed and an eight-bill package initially proposed by the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board was approved by the Michigan legislature earlier this year and signed by Governor Snyder.”
DRFs formally ended on September 30. Those with outstanding DRFs benefitted from an amnesty.
“DTE will continue to advocate and move forward on lowering and eliminating barriers to employment,” said Meador. “Like most Michiganders, we want to see lawmakers enact some form of equitable auto insurance reform. Licensing reform is another area where we feel costs and time commitments are preventing entrepreneurs and others from entering certain professions. We’re hopeful bipartisan support grows to lower employment barriers faced by returning citizens – people rejoining society after serving time in jail or prison. We’re supporting the legislative process to help those affected by barriers to employment to achieve equitable outcomes enabling them to be a part of a thriving economy with prospering families.”