The 2015 Legislative session ended on December 17 and resumed January 13, 2016 with spring break scheduled for April 1-9. Governor Rick Snyder is scheduled to deliver his sixth State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature at 7 p.m. on January 19.
Election “Reforms” Enacted
The last session day in December was spent passing two major election-related bills that brought a great deal of contentious objections from the minority Democratic Party lawmakers, local election officials and local governments.
Straight-ticket voting nixed — The House passed Senate Bill 13 to repeal straight-ticket voting on December 9 but tie-barred it to HB 4724, which would have allowed in-person, no-reason absentee voting. The Senate broke the tie-bar and sent only the straight ticket voting repeal back to the House for concurrence, then to Governor Snyder.
The Governor signed the repeal (PA 268, immediate effect) explaining that “Michigan is one of only 10 states that allows residents to vote for just a party affiliation rather than individual people. It’s time to choose people over politics.” But he also urged that the Legislature send him a separate no-reason absentee voting bill to expand Michigan’s “archaic absentee voting law” to address concerns about longer Election Day lines at the polls as a result of voters needing more time to fill out the entire partisan portion of the ballot.
Michigan Democrats tend to see more of their voters use the straight ticket option so ending it has been a longtime Republican goal. In 2001, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed, and then-Governor John Engler signed, a bill ending straight-ticket voting. But voters repealed the change in a 2002 referendum. Because the bill Mr. Snyder signed contains a $5 million appropriation for new voting equipment, it is immunized from the referendum process under a 2001 Michigan Supreme Court ruling.
Campaign finance changes — What started out as a 12-page bipartisan bill to let organizations collect membership dues and PAC contributions at the same time became a divisive issue when Senate Republicans substituted on the floor a 53-page bill with many campaign finance changes. This occurred at the very end of a 12-hour session on December 16. No public hearings were held on the additional changes in the bill because of the process used. Democrats and apparently many Republican legislators did not get a chance to read the bill in the 15 minutes before being required to vote on it.
Of particular concern are new provisions that would prohibit public bodies from using public resources for communications referencing local ballot questions by radio, television, mass mailing or prerecorded telephone message 60 days prior to an election.
Also in the new language is elimination of a February filing deadline for independent and political committees, doubling the amount of money Political Action Committees can donate to candidates, and prohibiting corporations from collecting contributions from its employees for a union’s PAC. On the bright side, the bill requires robocalls to identify who is paying for the call with contact information.
Governor Snyder signed SB 571 (now Public Act 269 of 2015) on January 6. In a signing statement to legislators, he encouraged them to pass follow-up legislation. Specifically he stated that additional legislation “to clarify that the new language does not impact the expression of personal views by a public official, the use of resources or facilities in the ordinary course of business, and that it is intended only to prohibit the use of targeted, advertisement-style mass communications that are reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence the electorate using taxpayer dollars. Local governmental entities and schools should still be allowed to distribute basic information about an election including the proposed or final ballot language and the date of the election. This is keeping within the spirit of the existing restrictions in the Act.”
Flint Water Crisis
In April 2014, the Flint city council decided to join with other jurisdictions in the Thumb Area to develop their own water system that would be completed by the end of 2016. The switch of Flint’s water supply away from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system that draws its water from Lake Huron was designed to save Flint millions of dollars. Flint has been under an Emergency Manager appointed by the Governor since December 2011. He decided, as a cost savings measure, to draw water from the Flint River in the interim. Officials in the Department of Environmental Quality advised that the Flint River water met requirements for safety. And while almost immediately residents complained about the taste, the smell and the appearance of the water, state officials insisted the water was safe.
However, it was later revealed that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had data that showed there were elevated lead levels in Flint’s water in the summer of 2014, but delayed in releasing that data to others for review until September 2015.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor overseeing a study of Flint’s drinking water, spoke at a town hall meeting in Flint organized by local water rights advocacy groups on September 15, 2015. Edwards and students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University found that Flint drinking water was very corrosive and causing lead contamination in homes. The initial Virginia Tech report was based on 120 water tests from Flint and showed 20 percent of water samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead action limit of 15 parts per billion.
Also in September 2015, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center released data analyzing blood-lead level information collected as part of a routine screening process. The researcher found that the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels had increased significantly since the city started pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014. In some ZIP codes — those considered most at-risk — the percentage of kids affected by lead had doubled. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services claimed the increase was “seasonal and not related to the water supply.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the human body according to the EPA.
Due to the rising number of complaints and proof that that there was a public health crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created a Drinking Water Task Force for Flint. The Legislature appropriated $9.35 million to help Flint switch back to the Detroit water supply. Governor Snyder appointed the director of his Office of Urban Initiatives to oversee efforts to resolve the water issues in Flint. DEQ officials acknowledged that they did not anticipate the corrosive effects of the Flint River water would have on Flint’s antique plumbing systems, causing them to leach lead into the water in some locations.
The mistakes in the MDEQ caused the reassignment of the head of the MDEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance and the eventual resignation of the DEQ Director Dan Wyant and Public Information Officer Brad Wurfel. On January 4, Genessee County officially declared a state of emergency and requested $50 million in emergency assistance. On January 5, 2016 the Governor affirmed the state of emergency and on the same day the U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed it was working with the EPA to open an investigation into the contamination of Flint’s water supply. Rep. Phil Phelps (D-Flushing) has introduced a bill making it a 5-year felony for any state employee to knowingly manipulate data that would change the outcome of an official report.
Governor Snyder has apologized to Flint residents for the failures of state agencies and called on the departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services to reach out to experts on drinking water quality in light of additional preliminary findings of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force that put the primary responsibility for the lead contamination in Flint water with the DEQ.
Data Center Tax Breaks — Governor Rick Snyder has signed a pair of bills, SB 616 and 617, providing sales and use tax exemptions for data centers in the state saying they “modernize the structure of Michigan’s tax code” by giving data centers similar treatment as manufacturing facilities, which better aligns the state with tax laws in 16 other states. The bill to exempt the data centers from personal property taxes saw no action.
The bills moved very quickly through the legislative process to entice Switch, a Nevada-based data storage center, to locate a facility at the former Steelcase Pyramid in Gaines Township, Kent County, but the bills cover all 40 data centers in the state. Switch is anticipated to invest about $5 billion in the facility and serve the entire East Coast.
It took the House more than nine hours to gather the votes needed to approve the bills. In a rare bi-partisan effort, 32 House Republicans joined 29 Democrats to pass the measures. Amendments from Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak) and Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) require data centers throughout the state to have a net increase of 400 jobs by 2022 and 1,000 by 2026. Democrats had insisted on some job creation assurances. The exemptions from the sales and use taxes sunset in 2035 and the state’s School Aid Fund will be held harmless from any loss of tax revenue incurred by the incentive. The bills passed the Senate largely along party lines.
Energy — The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Michigan Agency for Energy recently announced that Michigan is well on its way to compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan about reducing emissions. With 1 percent annual energy waste reduction per year — less than the amount utilities are actually achieving at around 1.4 percent - and if the state’s electric demand doesn’t exceed 1.2 percent growth per year (which would be more than the historical average), it is set to be in compliance with the EPA rule through at least 2025, and in one scenario, 2028. Michigan specifically is expected to reduce its emissions 31 percent by 2030. Between 2013 and 2020, 25 different coal units will retire in Michigan.
This fact has been used by the two big energy producers in Michigan, Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison, to press for legislation to regulate the industry differently by reducing electricity choice and the renewable energy mandates among other changes. The House bills have been voted out of Committee but have not yet been taken up on the floor.
Michigan Waiver — The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved a waiver that will allow the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion program to continue to operate for years to come. The program provides health insurance for over 600,000 people in Michigan with incomes between 100 to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The waiver permits the state to require Healthy Michigan recipients who have been in the program for four years to elect to either get coverage through the federal health care exchange or remain with Healthy Michigan and by following healthy behavior requirements, have lower cost sharing. The cost sharing on Healthy Michigan for recipients could be as much as 7 percent of their income, but state officials said Thursday it is unlikely most people would pay more than 5 percent of their income.
Population Report — Michigan’s population grew slightly from 2014 to 2015, helped by births and immigration, but the rate of growth is slow enough that the state could lose another congressional seat, figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau showed.
Fair Michigan — On December 29, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers approved the form and language of a ballot initiative to amend the Michigan Constitution to add gender, gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation to the civil rights protections in Article 1, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution. Fair Michigan announced it would begin circulating petitions to collect the 315,654 valid signatures of registered Michigan voters and turn them in by July 11 to qualify for the November 2016 general election.
Recalls — The Board also rejected recall attempts for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekof (R-West Olive) and Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) on grounds that the reasons for recall were not clearly or factually stated. There were spelling and punctuation errors as well. The proponents want to recall the lawmakers because of their support of hiking the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. The recall of Governor Snyder was again rejected. The proponent says the Governor failed to help the people of Flint with unsafe drinking water.
Marijuana — The Board approved a third ballot effort to legalize marijuana. The Abrogate Prohibition Michigan proposal would amend the Constitution to make cannabis plants, in any form, legal. The measure would repeal all current statutes banning the plants and their derivatives. Of the other two petition drives, MILegalize seems to be actively gathering signatures and raising money to collect the 252,523 signatures needed.
Fourth Democratic Primary Candidate Approved — The board approved Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente of San Diego, California for the Democratic presidential primary ballot. He joins Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders on the ballot for Michigan’s March 8 presidential primary.
Detroit Public Schools — Governor Snyder has warned that if the state is unable to restructure the Detroit Public Schools and its debt in the early part of 2016, creditors could bring legal action on unpaid bills. The Governor wants to split the district in two, with an old district carrying the debt and a new one to run educational operations. Under his plan, the 18-mill property tax applied to non-principal residences in the city would become dedicated to paying down DPS’s $715 million debt rather than going to the School Aid Fund for all school districts. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are enthusiastic about the plan and no legislation has been introduced. House Speaker Kevin Cotter wants to see major reforms in any proposal and the Dems want the DPS returned to board control. Neither wants to see money taken from other school districts to finance the DPS debt.
Auto Insurance Reform — The Senate passed SB 248 in April 2015 and the House Insurance Committee reported them shortly thereafter, but there has been no action on the bills since the end of April. Likely the bill will be taken up soon.
Criminal Justice Reforms — More legislation is likely to reform corrections and the criminal justice system. Presumptive parole has been passed by the House and sent to the Senate.
Medical marijuana regulation — The House has passed HB 4209 and HB 4210 and the bills await action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Rick Jones, who chairs the committee, is active on the issue and will likely move these or other bills.
State Employee Labor Agreements
The Michigan Civil Service Commission on December 16, 2015 approved a one-year 1 percent pay increase and a 1.5 percent lump sum payment for active state employees. There were few changes in health care coverage for the 2016-17 fiscal year under the five labor contracts that received final approval. However parties will have to return to the bargaining table next fall to bargain wages and health benefits again because the implications of the so-called “Cadillac tax” under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) were not known at the time of bargaining. Subsequently, the Obama administration announced a two-year delay in implementation of the Cadillac tax — a 40 percent tax on health plans costing at least $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage. The BCBS Health Plan total annual premium for individual coverage is currently $8,256 and family coverage total annual premium is $22,510, well under the threshold for the penalty tax.
The Commission approved essentially the same pay package for non-union employees and unclassified employees. The commission rejected a request from nurses at state psychiatric hospitals for a 4 percent raise, but urged them to come back in 2016 with more proof of the need for higher pay. Recently the Commission adopted a rule to expand family leave to include caring for grandchildren.
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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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