October 9, 2016
While Michigan remains a presidential battleground state and candidates and their surrogates visit us with increasing frequency, state and local politics remain important.
STATE ELECTION ISSUES
State of Play — The House Republicans want to hang on to their majority and the House Dems want to keep current seats in its column as well as flip 9 GOP seats so that they become the majority. The majority party controls committee chair appointments and what bills are taken up. The Republicans have controlled the House since the 2010 wave election gave them full control of all branches of state government.
A GOP loss of eight seats would mean the parties share control of the 110-member House chamber for the first time since 1993-94. During that time, each party controlled committees and the House floor on alternating months.
Both chambers will return to Lansing November 9 and 10 to elect leaders for the 2017-2018 session of the Legislature. Both chambers have at least 9 more lame-duck session days scheduled after Thanksgiving. There is not yet much published news about what will be taken up during Lame Duck but it will likely be related to legislation on which the current incumbents have done extensive work, or controversial legislation that those up for re-election wanted to avoid.
House Leadership Race — House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) is term-limited so there has been an active Republican House leadership race. Either Republican Rep. Tom Leonard of DeWitt or current House Democratic Leader Rep. Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills is likely to be the next speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, depending on whose political party wins control of the House in November.
Leonard forged a more extensive coalition during the primary season than his competitor, Rep. Rob VerHeulen (R-Walker). Leonard is the current Speaker Pro-Tem. Now running for his third and final term in the House, Leonard previously worked as an assistant attorney general for the state and as a prosecutor for Genesee County. He is a former chair of the DeWitt Township Public Safety Committee.
Voting and Absentee ballots — Michigan polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 8. See your voter registration card or go to www.michigan.gov/vote to learn the location of your polling place, sample ballot, and other information.
For an application for absentee ballot call your city or township clerk’s office to have an application mailed to you. Or you can go online at michigan.gov/vote and print one out. Requests to have an absent voter ballot mailed to you must be received by your clerk no later than 2 p.m. the Saturday before the election, November 5.
Actually many municipal clerks have a polling booth right in the office where you can fill out the application for an absentee ballot, obtain your ballot on the spot, fill it out, and give it to them in one visit.
After receiving your absent voter ballot, you have until 8 p.m. on election day to complete the ballot and return it to your clerk’s office. Many jurisdictions now have a convenient drive-thru drop box for absentee ballots. Ballots will cost 68 cents to mail; make sure you mail it in time to be received timely by your clerk. Planning ahead will avoid potential mail snafus and loss of your right to vote. Remember that your absentee ballot will not be counted unless your signature is on the return envelope and matches your signature on file.
Ballot Selfies — As reported last month, the challenge to the recent Republican-sponsored ban on straight ticket voting won in court and straight ticket voting is on Michigan ballots.
However, a new legal issue has cropped up. Michigan law prohibits a voter from showing her completed ballot to third parties. The ballot exposure law and policies date back to 1891 and were designed to help eliminate the problem of vote buying, coercion and voter intimidation. The penalty is forfeiture of the ballot; willful violations of election law are considered a misdemeanor subject to fines and potential jail time.
In the age of digital technology, many people are taking pictures of their ballot or of themselves voting, and posting it on social media. Joel Crookston, 32, sued the state in Grand Rapids federal court last month, arguing his First Amendment right to free speech was unconstitutionally limited by state law and policy on sharing a picture of a completed ballot. A federal appeals court recently struck down a similar law in New Hampshire, noting the state could not document a single instance of voter intimidation related to ballot photos posted on social media.
State Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) introduced legislation in March that would allow voters to take photos of themselves or their ballots inside a polling place or voting booth. He acknowledged taking a ballot selfie and posting it on Facebook in 2008, before he knew it was prohibited, and ended up taking it down later. The bill has not received a hearing.
FLINT WATER CRISIS UPDATE
More sickness — As if lead poisoning and Legionnaire’s disease isn’t enough burden to bear, this year Genesee County has had 85 confirmed and probable cases of shigellosis, a bacterial disease spread person-to-person through fecal-oral transmission, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has reported. This is up from 20 cases in 2015 and just four cases in 2014. The main sign of shigella infection is diarrhea, which often is bloody. It can linger for a week or more and may need anti-biotics to control it.
The DHHS is reminding residents in Genesee County to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds to combat the spread of shigellosis. Alcohol-based sanitizers and baby wipes are not sufficient protection. DHHS says unfiltered water is safe for handwashing and bathing though many residents are distrustful of the water quality and are still complaining about rashes.
Federal money — On September 28, the U.S. House of Representatives approved $170 million to replace lead-infested Flint water pipes in an end-of-fiscal year deal that had threatened to close down the federal government. Democrats objected to funding for Louisiana flooding damage but not Flint water pipes and had withheld their votes on a continuing resolution to fund an important federal program after September 30. Because the House measure is somewhat different than the $220 million Flint aid bill approved by the U.S. Senate on September 15, it will have to be worked out after the Congress returns in November. If not approved by the end of the year, the legislation would have to begin again next year.
Credit rating agency Moody’s says the federal aid will help the credit rating for the state, Genesee County and the Karagonda Water Authority. The state has appropriated $234 million to date on emergency resources, including some funding for pipe replacement.
Plea deal — On September 14, retired former state epidemiologist Corinne Miller pled no contest to one of three charges originally brought against her by Attorney General Bill Schuette and his Flint water investigative team. The facts on which her plea were stipulated paint a larger picture of the Legionnaire’s outbreak in Genesee County involving yet unnamed suspects above her in the bureaucracy.
Miller was originally charged with three counts: misconduct in office, conspiracy to commit misconduct in office, both felonies punishable by up to five years in prison, and willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor. As part of the agreement, the first two charges were dropped and she pled no contest to willful neglect of duty.
Charges against other employees and former employees of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality have been brought, but those cases are not scheduled to have any type of hearing until March 2017. How much Miller knows and is willing to tell the Attorney General investigators may contribute to prosecution of charges pending or contemplated against others. In exchange for her cooperation, Miller’s plea agreement states she will not face incarceration and that the court is to delay a sentence for 12 months, as well as place her on probation.
Lawsuit management — Genesee County Circuit Judge Richard Yuille now has 425 cases involving Flint water quality pending before his court as of late September after the transfer of some cases from other courts. There are other cases still pending in the Michigan Court of Claims (4) and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (10). Cases continue to be filed weekly. One of the most important is a request that the federal court order the state to comply with federal drinking water laws.
Judge Yuille asked parties for case management suggestions in September and it is expected that he will issue a case management order in the near future.
SNYDER SIGNS MEDICAL POT LAW
A 5-year bi-partisan legislative effort finally succeeded when landmark legislation setting new regulations on medical marijuana growers, transporters and dispensaries was signed by the Governor on September 21. It will go into effect December 20. The new laws will also allow the use of edible forms of medical marijuana. A new excise tax of 3 percent on medical marijuana would fund municipalities, counties, and sheriffs where marijuana facilities are located; Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards; State Police; and the State of Michigan. A Medical Marijuana Licensing Board is established to govern the marijuana industry.
The bills (HB 4209, PA 281; HB 4827, PA 282; HB 4210, PA 283) enable local governments to regulate marijuana provisioning centers and their locations, and create a seed-to-sale tracking system.
In 2008, a voter-initiated act won approval from voters legalizing medical marijuana, but it limited patients to growing their own or having someone grow it for them and provide it. Dispensaries, now renamed provisioning centers, were opened but were ruled illegal by the courts. They closed, but returned in large numbers in the past year or two in those communities that decided not to shut them down.
A divided panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on October 3 rejected Detroit retirees’ appeal to challenge the Detroit bankruptcy deal that cut their retirement benefits 4.5 percent and ended their cost of living increases. The majority said the harm that could happen to Detroit and its residents outweighs the harm to the retirees if the bankruptcy plan was unraveled.
STATE UNIONS PAY DEAL
A tentative agreement between the Office of the State Employer and most state employee unions will provide a 3 percent wage increase effective October 1, 2017 and a 2 percent base wage increase effective October 1, 2018. There will be no health plan design changes or changes to premium share for active employees. Union members must ratify the agreement before presentation to the Civil Service Commission for approval.
Reading bill — Governor Snyder has signed controversial HB 4822 that would require students not reading at grade level in third grade to be held back a year (with some exceptions) and requires schools to implement reading assistance programs. Parents would have the right to appeal to a school administrator not to have their child held back, a major revision from the original bill.
Numerous well-attended and emotional hearings were held on the bill and a bi-partisan work group including legislators, education groups, parent groups, and employers worked for months to find common ground and compromise language.
Snyder also announced the initial appointees to his new PreK-12 Literacy Commission and appointed Rep. Amanda Price, sponsor of the bill, as its chair.
Private school aid — The Michigan Supreme Court on October 5 declined a request from Governor Snyder to issue an advisory opinion on whether new legislation that would pay for private schools, including religiously-affiliated schools, to comply with state safety regulations is constitutional. Likely public education groups will file a lawsuit to challenge the law.
Michigan’s Constitution forbids the use of public funding ”directly or indirectly” to ”aid or maintain” a private or parochial school. Opponents of the budget measure view it as an unconstitutional attempt to finance private schools. But supporters of public financing of private schools argue the funding would be constitutional because it would not go toward instructional purposes.
The public charter school movement has been one way around Michigan’s Constitution. Eighty percent of Michigan’s publicly-funded charter schools are for-profit, the highest in the nation.
Literacy Lawsuit — Seven students from Detroit’s lowest performing public and charter schools are suing the Governor, and other state education-related officials and boards for failure to provide literacy, alleging violation of 14th amendment/equal protection of the laws and race discrimination. Quite experienced education and constitutional lawyers from around the country are co-counsel on the suit. A similar literacy challenge brought by the ACLU of Michigan against the Highland Park schools based on the state constitution and statutes failed last year.
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 email@example.com.
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