December 5, 2021
As days shorten and winter sets in, issues are heating up in Lansing as we now approach the 2022 election year. Improvements to our defined benefit pension, redistricting, petition drives, and COVID dominated the news of interest to State employee retirees.
$300 Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) CAP REMOVAL
Senator Curtis Hertel’s bill to remove the $300 cap on the defined benefit (DB) State employee retirees’ annual supplement (COLA) has been introduced and is Senate Bill (SB) 775.
The current maximum was established by an amendment to the State Employee Retiree’s Act in 1987. It currently affects about 85 percent of DB State employee retirees. That $300 in 1987 is now worth about $129 due to inflation in the last 34 years. If the cap is removed entirely, DB retirees would get an annual 3 percent cumulative (not compounding) annual supplement similar to school employee retirees in the Member Investment Plan (MIP). That is, 3 percent would be added to whatever your wage at retirement was, then 3 percent the next year, and so on.
Co-sponsors — Joining Sen. Hertel to co-sponsor the bill are Tom Barrett (R-Grand Ledge) and Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) who both signed on the first day it was offered for co-sponsorship. Others signing on were Senators Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo), Paul Wojno (D-Warren), Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), Ed McBroom (R- Waucedah Township in the U.P.), Betty Alexander (D-Detroit), Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), and Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills in Oakland County). Except for Hertel, all of these are first term Senators likely running for re-election with Sen. Barrett running for a Congressional seat. Sen. Wojno’s staffer actually called after he signed on to express support and discuss the measure further, pointing out SB 775 was philosophically similar to his SB 3 to eliminate the pension tax.
Take Action — If your Senator is a co-sponsor, please call their office or e-mail them to thank them. If your Senator is not a co-sponsor, call or e-mail their office and urge them to sign on. In either case, let them know you and SERA are following the progress of the bill intently and are looking for the bill to get a fair hearing and a vote. You can find the contact information for your Senator by putting in your address or zip code or finding your Senate district on a map at www.senate.michigan.gov.
The Office of Retirement Services (ORS) was given an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed bill but declined to do so at this time. The revenue to finance the increased COLA would come from the DB pension fund. Any change, such as eliminating the COLA cap, would increase payments from the fund (currently around $ 2 billion annually) and potentially increase the Annual Required Contribution the State has to deposit into the pension fund, depending on a number of factors including market returns and mortality rate of participants. The actuarial estimates are an important element in SB 775 moving from a proposed bill into a signed law.
The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission’s work to redraw Michigan’s State Senate, State House, and U.S. Congressional district lines based on the 2020 Census is in its final 45-day public review. Any changes to the proposed maps will need to undergo another 45-day review so it is unlikely the Commission will change any lines within a map unless a huge public groundswell develops in these remaining days of review. At the December 2 hearing, many commenters want the Commission to scrap the House maps and start over, for instance.
The Commission will meet December 28 (and perhaps a few succeeding days) to adopt three maps from the nine collaboratively drawn and six individual Commissioner maps made public on November 12. The final maps will be used for the next ten years. Public comment is still possible on the Commission’s website www.michigan.gov/micrc. The collaboratively-drawn maps are conveniently named for trees for easier reference and Commissioner-drawn maps use the Commissioner’s last name for reference.
Academic Non-partisan Evaluation — The non-partisan Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (MSU-IPPSR) in collaboration with the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) in the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan issued a 161-page second report on November 15 analyzing the nine proposed collaborative maps. It can be found at ippsr.msu.edu/redistricting. Among its recommendations:
Despite the critique and recommendations contained in the report, the Institute concluded that “ . . . we are confident that the maps produced by the Commission will better meet the criteria outlined in the Constitution than the prior maps.”
Voting Procedure — Still undecided at this writing are the exact voting procedures the Commission will use to choose a final map for each of the three types of districts. The December 16 Commission meeting may bring more clarity on how much discussion and debate there will be before a vote and whether voting is on paper or by roll call voice vote, for instance.
The Constitution requires that the majority of the Commissioners (7) must approve the final maps with the support of at least two Democratic, two Republican and two Non-affiliated members of the 13 Commissioners. If no collaboratively-drawn map garners those seven votes for that type of district, the Commission may choose from among individual Commissioner-proposed maps for that type of district in a rather complicated rank ordering scheme. If an impasse develops, the Secretary of State will randomly select the final plan from among all submitted plans.
Closed Meeting — In addition to the contentious differences of opinion on just where lines should be drawn and how the Commission will conduct its voting, the Commission has drawn the ire from all sides for holding a first-ever closed session on October 27 to discuss two legal memos surrounding Voting Rights Act compliance and the history of racial discrimination in Michigan as it relates to voting.
There are two circulating petitions that the Michigan SERA Coordinating Council opposes: Unlock Michigan 2 to reduce the power of public health departments to control disease outbreaks and Secure MI Vote to rollback voting rights. Both were discussed in last month’s SERA-Nade. In addition, there are eight others circulating, in the approval process by the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, planned or rumored about.
The Yes on National Popular Vote petition had its 100-word summary approved by the Board on October 26 and the form of its petition approved on November 15. If adopted by the Legislature (or voters if the Legislature declines to approve it), the Yes on National Popular Vote petition would require Michigan’s Electoral College votes to be cast for the Presidential candidate winning the most votes nationwide. Presidents in 2000 and 2016 did not win the popular vote but won the Electoral College and served as President.
On November 29, the Board approved the petition summary and form for two petitions creating a tax break for those paying private and parochial school tuition in Michgan. Let MI Kids Learn (A) would create the Student Opportunity Scholarship Act which would require the Michigan Department of Treasury to run a scholarship program to award up to $8,700 scholarships ($500 limit for public school students) for K-12 students meeting income, disability, or foster-care requirements. Let MI Kids Learn (B) amends Michigan’s Income Tax Act to allow tax credits for those who donate to the Student Opportunity Scholarship program. Governor Whitmer vetoed practically identical bills last month. The Michigan Constitution, Article VIII, Section 2 forbids such public subsidy of private or parochial education so if enacted, there would likely be litigation challenging it.
On November 15, the Board approved the 100-word petition summary submitted by Michigan United to repeal the truth in sentencing law and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences extended by disciplinary time for prisoner misconduct. The proposal would establish new types of earned credits to reduce prison sentences for prisoners earning education degrees or certifications, employment while in prison, and other good behavior. Approval as to the form of the petition is pending.
The Board has solicited comment on a proposed 100-word summary on the petition submitted by Michiganders for Fair Lending. The legislation aims to cap the high fees charged by payday lenders.
Rumored to be in the works are two petitions from Progress Michigan to extend the Freedom of Information Act or equivalent to the Governor and Legislature, and lobbying reform. Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections is interested in proposing a way to control dark money sources for political campaigns. Pro-choice forces have been talking about a petition to counteract what is expected to be an adverse U.S. Supreme Court decision reducing access to abortion.
The pandemic continues to bedevil us. On November 29, there were more people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus in Michigan than at any other point during the 20-month pandemic. Mid-Michigan hospitals are nearing a record high of Coronavirus hospitalizations and 70 percent of those are unvaccinated, according to WKAR reporting. Some hospitals are canceling elective procedures, thus delaying health improvement opportunities for the whole community. National Guard help has been supplied to several hospitals in the state to cope with understaffing and the overload of patients.
The State of Michigan has been on a steep upward trajectory of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths since early November. The news of the new variant Omicron that may turn out to be more infectious than the Delta variant is also worrisome. Since COVID is airborne, the advice is the same: get vaccinated and boosted; wear a good quality mask over nose and mouth in all indoor public places where you don’t know the vaccination or infection status of those sharing the air with you; social distance around those with unknown status; before meeting indoors with family or friends, inquire about their vaccination status; stay home when you are sick; get early treatment if you have COVID symptoms; quarantine yourself if you have COVID.
President Biden announced recently several more efforts to mitigate the pandemic. Incoming international travelers, regardless of nationality, will have to show a negative COVID test 24 hours before entering the U.S. The mask mandate for all public transit will be continued. Some family vaccination clinics will be launched. Health insurers will be asked to cover the cost of at-home COVID test kits which can be purchased at your local pharmacy for around $25 for a two-pack.
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