April 5, 2020
Most of the state’s March news involved COVID-19, but the Governor signed a bill that we supported.
PENSION TAX AMENDMENT
Both chamber passed HB 4171 unanimously, so it was a no-brainer that Governor Gretchen Whitmer would sign the bill that will allow a widow or widower to claim a tax deduction that would have applied to his or her late deceased older spouse if the widow or widower had not remarried since the death of his or her spouse. The law is now Public Act 65 of 2020 and has immediate effect. This is the first modification of the pension tax since it was adopted in 2011 for tax year 2012, a great first step toward repeal or modification.
Extent in MI — Although the novel coronavirus first made its public appearance in China in December and killed thousands, the first public report of the coronavirus in Michigan was January 24. The first test-confirmed cases weren’t reported until March 10; the first death was reported on March 18.
There are currently no vaccines or anti-viral treatments available for the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19. It can spread quite easily through infected persons coughing, sneezing or emitting spittle while talking. Those with the illness sometimes have no symptoms. The illness can present as the flu, but it has a much higher mortality rate, especially for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. The average age of those who have died from COVID-19 in Michigan is 71.6 years old; the median age is 73 years old with ages ranging from 20 to 107 years old. Sixty-nine of Michigan’s 83 counties have at least one confirmed case.
The predominant public health strategies have been containment and community mitigation. Stay home, wash hands, keep 6 feet distance from other people, wear a mask in public places, call your doctor if you have symptoms — don’t just show up at the emergency room or an urgent care.
MI a hot spot — At this writing, Michigan ranks third in the country with 15,718 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Deaths in Michigan stand at 617, with the southeast Michigan counties having the most cases. TCF Center, formerly the Cobo Center in Detroit, has been turned into a hospital facility with 900 beds with the help of federal funding. Other urban counties are now showing a greater rate of increase. A shortage of test kits and a great lag time in getting testing results during February and March may have suppressed the real number of cases in Michigan and across the country.
By the time you read this, all these numbers are predicted to rise precipitously. Daily updates and information are available for Michigan at www.michigan.gov/coronavirus and a COVID-19 Hotline is at 888-535-6136.
Timeline — It is helpful to be reminded of how our lives have changed in such a short period of time due to COVID-19. Our First Amendment rights to freely assemble and travel have been severely restricted.
The first legislative hearing on COVID-19 was February 27; the next day the Governor activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center to coordinate among local, state and federal officials to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
On March 10, the day of Michigan’s presidential primary, the Michigan House included $10 million in a spending bill for the state’s coronavirus response and $15 million for a coronavirus fund for future efforts if needed. On March 17 another bill to provide $125 million advanced in both chambers. The Governor subsequently signed both bills.
First cases — In an extraordinary 10:45 p.m. press conference on March 10, the Governor declared a State of Emergency after announcing the first two confirmed cases in Michigan. Assemblages with more than 250 people were prohibited except for manufacturing, mass transit or for stores providing groceries and consumer goods. The state’s public universities voluntarily suspended in-person classes or even canceled them for the year. There was an early wave of cancellations or postponement of conferences and meetings in March, April and May including the Michigan Democratic Party’s Endorsement Convention, the NCAA tournament, and most professional sports. Screening procedures at state prisons and federal courthouses were begun.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Around the same time, bills were introduced to control price gouging; other bills focused on requiring Medicaid and private insurance coverage for COVID-19 related expenses with no out-of-pocket expense for treatment and testing, wage loss, medications, vaccines and sanitizer and face masks.
Economic impact — Concurrent with the shutdown of many non-essential businesses, there was a rapid decline in national economic activity. By March 12 there was a 28 percent decline in the stock market for the previous 30 days. Reduced income, sales and other tax revenues for the state were predicted but it was too early to project the magnitude. That will come with the May Revenue Estimating Conference.
With all the business shut downs, unemployment claims have skyrocketed. Estimates are that Michigan may reach 10 percent unemployment.
State appropriation subcommittee chairs were told to go line-by-line through budgets to see where potential cuts can be made. The rainy day fund is being eyed for financial help. The Governor issued executive directives freezing state government hiring and discretionary spending.
Schools — On March 13 the Governor shut down K-12 schools starting March 16 for three weeks. Generally the school schedule is collectively bargained though state law sets minimum seat time. After a great deal of public discourse on how to handle school closings, the Governor issued a 17-page Executive Order on April 2 closing school buildings for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. The Order required the Department of Education, in collaboration with the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, to distribute a model template to school districts for a distance learning plan. ISDs and charter school authorizing bodies must be prepared to review and approve or reject plans starting April 8.
Breaking point — When bars and restaurants were packed the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, the Governor concluded that people weren’t understanding the seriousness of the pandemic. In Executive Order 2020-9 issued March 16, the Governor closed not just bars and restaurants other than for delivery, drive-through and carryout (restaurants may allow only five people inside at a time to pick up orders and they must stay six feet apart), but also shuttered cafes, coffee houses, clubs, movie theaters, indoor and outdoor performance venues, gyms, fitness/exercise studios, spas, casinos, libraries, distilleries, cigar bars, brewpubs, nightclubs and any place of public amusement until March 30. The Legislature, mass transit, grocery stores, agriculture and construction work, health care facilities and workplaces not open to the public were exempted.
Executive Order 2020-10 temporarily expanded unemployment benefits. Executive Order 2020-11 reduced the assemblage limit from 250 to 50 people while exempting houses of worship from the misdemeanor penalty. (The Centers for Disease Control recommended a limit of 10.) On March 23 the Governor issued a more stringent EO 2020-21 to prohibit “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household.
Elections — On March 17, Secretary of State Benson announced that the May 5 elections needed to be done by absentee ballot to avoid mass congregations of people. She is sending absentee ballot applications to all voters in the upcoming election. About 40 of 100 localities and school districts that had originally been scheduled to have proposals on the May 5 ballot have delayed those questions to the August election.
Other changes — On March 18, the Governor called up the National Guard to help assemble and deliver medical equipment and delayed property tax foreclosures for unpaid taxes until May 29. The same day she issued Executive Order 2020-15, saying that public bodies that are subject to the Open Meetings Act — including boards, commissions, committees, subcommittees, authorities, councils and nonprofit boards — can now use telephone or video conferencing to continue meeting and conduct business so long as they follow certain procedures to ensure meaningful access and participation by members of the public body and general public.
Price gouging — Executive Order 2020-18 on price gouging states that if a person has acquired any product from a retailer, the person most not resell the product in Michigan at a price that is “excessively higher than the purchase price” when they bought it. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has been actively pursuing complaints of price gouging. As of this writing, the Department of Attorney General has received 2,806 tips regarding price-gouging items commonly associated with fighting COVID-19. That overall number includes 1,367 complaints filed online, through the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection website, and 1,439 complaints taken by phone.
Child care — On March 19, the Governor signed an executive order expanding the capacity for child care services for health care workers, first responders and other members of the essential workforce during the COVID-19 outbreak through expedited provisional licenses that would expand capacity for child care services. It also allows employers, including hospitals, to operate a disaster relief child care center for employees. Additionally, it allows public and non-public school facilities to be used to maintain a disaster relief child care center focused on providing services for members of the essential workforce.
More changes — On March 20 federal tax filing deadline was pushed back to July 15. State and local governments soon followed. All elective surgeries are postponed under EO 2020-17 issued March 20. Executive Order 2020-20 added hair, nail, tanning, massage, spa, tattoo body art and piercing services to those closed businesses through April 13.
Federal action — Congress passed three federal stimulus bills, the largest in American history, with billions for large and small businesses, the health care industry and direct one-time payments to residents. Michigan may receive $3.9 billion.
MI Major Disaster Area — The Governor asked President Donald Trump to declare Michigan a major disaster area caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on March 26. The President approved the request, which will provide individual assistance for unemployment, crisis counseling, case management, the individuals and households program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, survivor assistance, legal services and voluntary agency coordination.
Legislators with COVID-19 — State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died March 29 at 44 years old of suspected COVID-19. The week before, State Rep.Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) tested positive for COVID-19 after attending session on March 17 with 94 other lawmakers and various staff. He has since recovered.
Prisons — The Michigan Department of Corrections reported its first employee death from COVID-19 on April 1. There are over 140 inmate cases as of that date, with the majority of the cases being found at the Parnall and Macomb correctional facilities.
Under the Emergency Management Act of 1976, a state of emergency declared by the governor lasts for 28 days and can only be renewed with approval from the Legislature. However, the Governor has cited both that Act and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945 in the Executive Orders she has issued. The latter statute says the emergency ends upon a governor’s declaration that the emergency has ended. Recently the Governor requested the Legislature to extend emergency declarations for 70 days, an issue Republicans will take up when returning from their spring recess on April 7. The plan is to use “extraordinary protocols” to protect members from violating the social distancing and other health and safety precautions.
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