I long for the day when the most significant story from Lansing will not be budget related and my reports will cover some other important topic. But for the time being and in the foreseeable future, the state’s fiscal picture remains the top story. While the legislature works on agency budgets — each chamber operating independently of each other in their development, the Governor is searching for ways to enhance revenue to support next year’s budget. The Republican controlled legislature is not in agreement with the Governor’s proposals and is instead proposing reduction in expenditures. If there is any solace for the citizens of Michigan, we are not alone in the budgetary problems we are facing. The National Conference of State Legislators reports that over half of the states are facing similar budget balancing problems.
Meanwhile, Governor Granholm is complaining that the legislature is taking little action on a series of proposals on her legislative agenda which she called “no brainers” in terms of political complexity. Most of the bills introduced to make these proposals a reality remain in legislative committees without hearings having been held. Perhaps that is the price we pay for having a governor of one party and a legislature controlled by the other party.
The following bills did have some action during April and may be of interest to seniors/retirees:
SB 381 is a recently introduced bill known as the “Employee Privacy Protection Act”. This bill would make it unlawful for an employer to demote, discipline, discharge, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against an individual who engages in, or is regarded as engaging in, a lawful activity that is both off the employer’s premises and during non-work hours. The provisions of this bill would not apply to an activity which impairs a bona fide occupational requirement, a activity that is in conflict of interest with the core mission of the employer or violates a written bona fide conflict of interest policy issued by the employer, an activity using company property, or an activity which is covered under state or federal law regarding a particular type of employment. The bill also prohibits retaliation by the employer for complaints filed by an employee and allow for civil relief in a court of competent jurisdiction. The bill has been assigned to the Committee on Government Operations.
HBs 4405 & 4434 are bills explained in last month’s report. These bills remove the prohibition against Michigan pharmacies engaging in the receipt of prescriptions and dispensing medications by mail and permit prescriptions to be sent to and filled at a central location and returned to the local pharmacy for dispensing. The bills have the potential for the eventual establishment of mail order pharmacy services within the state, although this will probably not occur any time in the near future. The bills have passed the House and gone to the Senate where they were assigned to the Committee on Health Policy.
HB 4569 is a bill which will allow for early voting. The bill falls short of permitting no reason absentee balloting. Under the bill, a person could go to the clerk’s office and cast his/her ballot seven days prior to the day of the election. However, the voting must be done at the site and the voter does not have to state a reason for voting early. A major point of contention contained in this bill is the requirement that an early voter must establish his/her identity by presenting a Michigan driver license, state identification card or a photo identification issued by a state university or community college. Democrats opposed the identification requirement as the bill passed the House on a party-line vote. The bill has gone to the Senate where it has been referred to the Committee on Government Operations.
HB 4210 has been signed into law and is now Public Act 3 of 2005. This law requires a driver involved in a vehicle accident to remain at the scene of the accident regardless of whether the vehicles are damaged or the extent of any injuries. Prior to this change in the law, a driver could leave an accident believing there was no damage or injury and after exchanging information with the other driver. Law enforcement authorities had difficulty proving that a person who left an accident which was later determined to be of a serious nature was aware of the extent of the damage or injury at the time he/she left. This change closes that loophole by requiring all parties to remain at the scene until authorities approve of their leaving. If a driver reasonably believes that remaining at the scene would result in further harm, the driver can leave the scene and immediately report the accident to a police agency or officer.
HB 4289 would require the state to compare the list of persons appearing to own abandoned property with records maintained by the Department of Treasury that contain Social Security numbers. If a person appears to be the owner of abandoned property through such a cross-check, the administrator of abandoned property shall attempt to notify that person in writing that he/she may be the owner of abandoned property and request the person to contact the state for further verification. If the verification outlined above determines that the person is indeed the owner of the property and the property is money, the administrator shall then forward a check to the identified owner. The bill also provides funding for the procedure outlined above. The bill has passed the House and gone to the Senate Committee on Finance.
SB 199 is on its way to the Governor for signature. This bill allows for the re-corking of a bottle of wine purchased in a restaurant but not totally consumed during the meal so that the diner may take the remaining unconsumed wine home. The bill provides that the unconsumed wine shall not be transported in the passenger section of a vehicle. The Governor is expected to sign the bill into law.
HB 4275 redefines and clarifies the duties of the members of the Board of State Canvassers and limits their duties to the certification of the appropriate number of signatures needed to get an issue on the ballot and the proper form of the petition. Under this bill, they could no longer deal with issues such as the constitutionality of the proposal. The bill has passed the House and has now gone to the Senate Committee on Government Operations.
Credit Scoring Lawsuit — The insurance industry won round one of the battle concerning the prohibition against using credit scoring in establishing home owners and automobile insurance rates. The Commissioner of the Office of Financial and Insurance Services (OFIS) issued administrative rules banning the use of credit scores in determining the cost of home and automobile insurance policies. The Joint Rules Committee of the legislature rejected the rules established by the OFIS Commissioner but the two legislative bodies never acted on the Committee’s recommendation. A suit was filed in Barry County Circuit Court and the judge ruled that the OFIS Commissioner has no authority to reduce rates without first finding that each specific company’s rates were excessive and the ban on credit scoring was an attempt to do just that. The Commissioner cannot impose an across the board ban on credit scoring. The judge’s decision will likely be appealed and the issue eventually could be settled by the Michigan Supreme Court.
Proposed Change in Item Pricing Law — A group of legislators announced that they will soon introduce a bill to change the state’s item pricing law. Item pricing would not be necessary if (1) a large sign is immediately adjacent to the product and (2) the store provides self-serve scanners throughout the store to allow customers to verify the price of an item. Also, penalties for item pricing violations would be increased. They would increase from the current 10 times the overcharge up to $5 to 20 times the overcharge up to $10 with a minimum penalty of $2. The changes contained in the bill would not apply to grocery items. The actual bill had not been introduced at the time this report was written.
High Speed Internet Telephone Service — Attorney General Cox has announced he is joining with Texas in a lawsuit against Vonage, a company offering high speed Internet telephone service in Michigan. The problem is that subscribers to services offered by Vonage may not be able to access the 911 system using their system. In some instances, it has been reported that customers seeking to call the emergency 911 number were referred to a center that operates only during business hours. The lawsuit seeks to force Vonage to change its marketing strategy and inform customers that they may not have immediate access to 911 centers. Mr. Cox warns anyone considering Internet telephone service to make sure this is not a problem.
Proposed Earmarked Increase in Medicaid Payments — Governor Granholm is proposing to increase the daily amount paid by Medicaid to nursing homes by $5 which would be earmarked for physical improvement to older facilities. The nursing homes would have to use the $5 to remodel by making single rooms with bath which is the current model of construction of nursing homes. Apparently, elderly individuals have difficulty making the adjustment from a private home environment into an older nursing home where they may share a room and bath. Such physical changes would provide “true dignity and privacy” to these elderly individuals.
Democrat Task Force on Northern Michigan — The Democrat legislators have established a Task Force to determine the problems and needs of citizens of the Upper Peninsula and northern lower Michigan. Representative Gary McDowell of Rudyard is heading the Task Force which will hold hearings across the region on topics such as economic development, jobs and tourism, health care and prescription drugs, education, water protection, and trash.
MDOT Lane-Closure Website — The Michigan Department of Transportation has established a Website to allow citizens who travel throughout the state to be aware of lane closures. The site provides current data regarding lane closures and projected dates for future lane closures. The Website address is: www.mdot.state.mi.us/laneclosure or the same information may be obtained from the Transportation Home Page: www.michigan.gov/mdot.
Revenue Sharing Reduction — The money that goes to local governments in the form of revenue sharing based on formulas contained in the state constitution and statute is being reduced for 2005-6 as part of the state’s budget crunch. The budgets which have yet to be finalized, apparently will reflect an amount some $22 million less that that given during the current fiscal year. Such reductions will negatively impact the ability of local governments to deliver services. Before the budget is finalized, local governments are expected to lobby to have the funds restored.
Term-Limited Legislators Seeking to Bail Out — Several legislators who will be term-limited at the end of 2006, are seeking to find a home before that time arrives by running for other political offices. Several House members have announced that they will seek mayoral positions. Mary Waters of Detroit and Clarence Phillips of Pontiac have announced they will run for mayor in their respective cities. Representative Chris Kolb reportedly will seek the mayor’s position in Ann Arbor, while Representative Alexander Lipsey of Kalamazoo is considering running for the seat held by Senator Tom George or challenge Attorney General Cox for Attorney General. Senator Virgil Bernero of Lansing has announced that he will seek to become mayor of Lansing. He lost to the current mayor by a slight margin two years ago.
People in the News
Former State Senator Joe Mack of Ironwood died recently at the age of 85. He died at the local airport as he returned to Michigan after spending the winter in Florida. Mr. Mack was a legend in Michigan politics serving 30 years as a legislator — 26 of them as a senator. He was a staunch anti-environmentalist and a strong supporter of the U.P. mining and timber industries. He was forced to resign in 1990 over travel voucher improprieties. Mr. Mack will long be remembered for his colorful comments on various issues.
Keith Butler, the minister of a large Detroit area church formally announced that he will be a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate opposing Senator Debbie Stabenow. Butler recently made his candidacy announcement at three locations throughout the state.
Paul Hillegonds, a former House Speaker and President of Detroit Renaissance announced he is leaving that position to accept a position as Executive Vice President of DTE Energy, the parent company of Detroit Edison. He will be DTE’s chief lobbyist.
Paul Mitchell of St. Clair Shores was appointed to the Board of State Canvassers by Governor Granholm. This appointment is significant inasmuch as the Senate rejected her previous re-appointment of Dorothy Jones because of her stance on issues which came before the four-member bi-partisan Board.
Editor’s note: Alvin Whitfield is former President of the Lansing SERA Chapter and former Chairperson of the Michigan SERA Council and current Legislative Representative for both the Council and the Lansing Chapter. He may be contacted at 1241 Runaway Bay Drive, C-3, Lansing, Michigan 48917; phone 517/703-9666; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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