September and early October have been busy at Michigan’s Capitol. The scaffolding connected to the restoration work on the Capitol Building’s exterior is beginning to disappear, raising everyone’s spirit and perhaps encouraging some bi-partisan work on knotty issues.
Road Funding Plan Advances
The bi-partisan legislative conference committee and the Governor’s office have been working behind closed doors on a transportation funding plan with meetings practically every day, but keeping a low profile. HB 4612, HB 4613 and HB 4615 are the central pieces of legislation about which they are negotiating. The House conferees are House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt.Pleasant), 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-Clark Lake) and Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit). The three bills modify vehicle registration fees, guarantee replacement warranties on road repairs and change the gas tax, respectively.
New revenue or redirection of current revenue — The big looming question right now is how much new revenue are legislators willing to approve to get to the $1.2 billion needed? Many legislators have taken a pledge to never raise taxes ever, for any reason.
Another questions is how much of current General Fund revenue will be redirected from current programs such as education, local government, health care, corrections, and other state priorities to help find that $1.2 billion?
Stakes are high — If you are a first-term legislator in a swing district, you may be a one-termer if you anger too many in your district by going for any tax increase. Or vote no when the roads in your district are in a sorry state. So the stakes are pretty high for a significant portion of legislators. Since a transportation agreement will need to achieve the necessary 56 votes in the House, 20 in the Senate and the Governor’s signature, a significant number of votes from both Republicans and Democrats will be needed.
Movement — Last month the House Republicans moved from $400 million in new revenue to maybe $600 million. The Governor said no to that as it would cut into current programs too much to find the rest of the $1.2 billion. The latest trial balloon from the House side of the Capitol is $800 million. Many are expecting an announcement in October about a road funding plan. Because the public reacts so negatively to information about all the side deals that are included in any controversial or big program initiative like this, we are not likely to officially hear much about the side deals and promises made, including appearances for fundraisers, jobs granted and all the rest of it. The bigger the deal, the more like sausage making it truly is.
Courser Gamrat Scandal Update
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 and other misconduct.
HBO Investigates — Fairly quickly House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) asked the House Business Office to investigate. The HBO report issued August 31 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. The HBO recommended expulsion for Courser and censure for Gamrat.
Special committee appointed — Speaker of the House Cotter named a six-member bi-partisan special committee chaired by House Oversight Committee Chair Ed Mc Broom (R-Vulcan). Hearings were held September 8 10; both Courser and Gamrat testified and admitted to wrongdoing, apologized and were contrite. Democrats on the Committee wanted to call more witnesses, including the employees who whistle blew on the misconduct, but the Chair did not allow it. Dems also wanted a criminal investigation to be ordered, but that suggestion was also nixed.
The Committee majority voted to expel both members in the morning of September 10. In the afternoon, the full House took up the resolutions to expel, finally getting the necessary majority at about 4 a.m. September 11. Dems withheld their votes until they got agreement that a criminal investigation would be done. In the end, Courser resigned when he saw he did not have enough support, but Gamrat remained through to expulsion. The whole process took less than five weeks.
Primary November 3 — The next day the Governor announced a special primary on November 3 to elect State Representatives for the districts. Both Courser and Gamrat have filed to run for their old seats but have significant primary competition.
Meanwhile the whistleblower employees who were fired July 7 by Courser and Gamrat have brought lawsuits for wrongful termination and retaliation for having reported violations of state law to House officials. Likely the state will have to pick up the tab for defense of the employee dismissals.
Medical Marijuana Distribution Bills
Michigan voters in 2008 approved the use of medical marijuana to treat the pain connected with specific conditions. The measure spurred the creation of dispensaries to distribute medical marijuana, but the courts shut them down as being illegal under the law. Three bills enacted by the House recently after four years of work are the latest attempt to provide the regulatory framework to legalize a distribution system for medical marijuana.
HB 4209, HB 4210 and HB 4827 create a framework for medical marijuana that could also be used for recreational marijuana if voters make it legal. There are two ballot proposals circulating right now to decriminalize growing, possession, distribution and use of small amounts of marijuana by adults.
Provisioning centers authorized — Under the bills, medical marijuana would be sold at provisioning centers with a 3 percent excise tax on top of the usual 6 percent sales tax. The money would go to local law enforcement efforts.
With a super majority needed to amend a citizens’ initiative, Rep. Mike Callton (R-Nashville) and House Republicans compromised with Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and other Democrats to get a number of changes to the bill such as a smaller excise tax than the originally proposed 8 percent. Law enforcement also worked on the bills as full legalization is likely coming down the pike: Colorado and Washington state have fully legalized marijuana already.
Regulatory structure — HB 4209 outlines an entirely new regulatory structure that includes five different types of licenses for growers, processors, testing labs, secure transporters and dispensaries. Local communities would have to pass their own ordinances allowing provisioning centers. Local governments would get a portion of the revenue from the taxes and be allowed to set up an annual licensing fee. The bills also require background checks and training for people working in the marijuana industry.
License fees would be charged to support the cost of regulation. The package also includes a seed-to-sale tracking system and the regulation of marijuana-infused products such as medibles and topicals. The bills next go to the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) for consideration.
Homestead Property Tax Credit Bill
Michigan SERA testified before the House Tax Policy Committee on October 7 in support of HB 4871, a bill sponsored by Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy) that would annually adjust for inflation the several elements for calculating the Homestead Property Tax Credit. Those are the HPTC cap (currently at $1200), total household resources of the tax payer (currently $50,000), and the cap on the taxable value of the homestead (currently $135,000). By indexing these elements, it would protect from depreciation the value of the HPTC to lower income Michigan taxpayers. Sixty-five percent of defined benefit state retirees have an annual pension under $24,000 per year, making quite a few of us eligible for the HPTC.
The Michigan Department of Treasury testified it was still studying the bill and saw some points that need to be clarified. No vote was taken on the bill, but it is a major breakthrough to have the Committee consider this small inexpensive change in the 2011 tax overhaul.
The petition drive to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law turned in significantly more signatures than needed to force legislative consideration of the measure. The Board of State Canvassers is reviewing the petitions and an announcement ought to be coming soon.
Editor’s note: Mary Pollock is the Lansing SERA Chapter and SERA Council’s Legislative Representative. She may be contacted at 1200 Prescott Drive, East Lansing, MI 48823-2446; Phone 517-351-7292; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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