In August the Senate did not meet; the House met three days, two of them fairly long days of waiting for any word on a roads fix deal. Roads financing and a sex-tinged scandal consumed the most media attention.
Roads Fix Update
In August the House sent three of the bills related to finding the revenue to build and maintain Michigan’s roads and bridges (HB 4612, HB 4613 and HB 4615,) to conference committee. The House conferees are House Speaker Kevin Cotter, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) and Rep. Marilyn Lane (D-Fraser). The Senate conferees are Sen. Geoff Hansen (R-Hart), Sen. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit). The three bills modify vehicle registration fees, modify replacement warranties on road repairs and change the gas tax, respectively.
Quadrant meetings — But the main action in August was that the leaders of the Michigan House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses finally began meeting with the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor (while the Governor was in China on a trade mission). A transportation agreement will need to achieve the necessary 56 votes in the House, 20 in the Senate and the Governor’s signature. The sizable number of anti-tax House Republican caucus makes winning approval of substantial new revenue for roads impossible without a significant number of Democratic votes.
House action —After the epic defeat of Proposal 1 last May, finding a roads agreement is at the top of the agenda. And none too soon as recent polling indicates the public is getting pretty exasperated with the indecision in Lansing. Last June the House sent over to the Senate a plan that would use existing revenue (through budget cuts and dedicating all future tax revenue growth) and a small amount of new revenue by eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit and reducing the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s business development grants. Budget cuts have already caused a one-third reduction in staff at the MEDC this month.
Senate action —In response, the Senate didn’t like all the MEDC cuts and so in July it sent back to the House a proposal to raise the gasoline tax, create parity with how the state taxes diesel fuel, increase vehicle registration fees, redirect $700 million in current spending to roads. Oh, and an income tax rollback was added to the mix.
Missing parts —Neither the House nor Senate Republican plans stated what budget cuts – education, local government, corrections, human services, natural resources? – would have to be reduced to redirect the money to transportation.
Democrats position —The Democrats are saying publicly that the negotiations are going well but they won’t support a plan that doesn’t state what budget cuts will be needed to fund more for the roads. They suggest that increasing the corporate income tax is the way to find the revenue instead. The Governor says increasing the corporate income tax would hurt the state’s recovery.
$600/$600 plan —For a few days in August, a deal was floated from House Republicans that would take $600 million in budget cuts from the General Fund and find $600 million in new revenue. Governor Snyder put the kibosh on the proposal, saying the roads fix cannot be viewed in isolation from all the other spending priorities on key state functions. Starting in 2017 funds must be found to begin covering 5 percent of the cost of extending Medicaid to those up to 133 percent of the poverty level via the Healthy Michigan program (gradually growing to 10 percent). The Medicaid use tax and hospital provider tax expire in 2017 meaning replacement revenue must be found; caseloads are increasing in Medicaid and public assistance despite the improved Michigan economy.
Future —Just mentioning the other spending problems in relation to a roads deal made many legislators nervous as they think the voters want a roads-only agreement with no side deals. Some are saying an agreement will happen after Labor Day; others note that may mean lame duck session in December 2016.
Courser – Gamrat Scandal
Story breaks —On August 7 the Detroit News reported that interviews with former Michigan House employees and audio recordings show that freshmen lawmakers Todd Courser (R-Lapeer) and Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell) used their taxpayer-funded offices to maintain and cover up their extra-marital affair. Courser, 43, and Gamrat, 42, are both married to others and both have children. According to the Detroit News, the pair are “socially conservative legislators who often invoke their Christian faith in pursuit of new legislation governing gun rights, abortion and marriage. Their political alliance dates back to Courser’s unsuccessful 2013 race for Michigan Republican Party chairman when Gamrat ran as his vice chairwoman.” In the spring Gamrat was expelled from the Republican Caucus for breaking Caucus confidentiality rules when she posted something on Facebook during a Caucus meeting. Courser is also estranged from the House Republican Caucus.
Investigation by the HBO —House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) opened an investigation by the House Business Office into any wrongdoing on the day the story broke. That report was issued August 31 and found that the two used their taxpayer-funded staff to cover up an extramarital affair, to advance their political agenda and to build a campaign database. The report found that Courser had a House-paid staff member do work for his Lapeer-based law firm. Additionally the report said Courser instructed his House staff “to prioritize political tasks over legislative issues.”
To quote the report: “There is testimonial and documentary evidence that both representatives made clear to their employees that their job descriptions included tasks that were exclusively political in nature,” the report says “and that their employment was contingent on furthering the representatives’ political endeavors.” The report also stated “The evidence demonstrates that both members, in combining office staff and operations, improperly and inextricably entwined political, personal, business and official state matters.” Staff members were required to lie about Courser and Gamrat’s whereabouts when the two were together, the investigation found.
The report also found evidence that Courser and Gamrat forced staff members to forge their signatures on three yet-to-be-introduced bills, known as “blue backs.”
Special committee appointed —Speaker of the House Cotter named a six-member special committee chaired by House Oversight Committee Chair Ed Mc Broom (R-Vulcan). At this writing on September 7, the Committee has met once to receive the full report and establish ground rules for the committee’s work. The committee could propose expulsion of Courser and Gamrat from the House or recommend other actions. The Committee did not turn the matter over to law enforcement, action that Democrats have called for with the implication that criminal wrongdoing may be at issue.
Courser says he expects to be fully exonerated. Gamrat says that the voters in her district should decide if she should be expelled from the House through her re-election campaign next year. Numerous people have called for them to resign.
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