There was not any heavy duty legislative activity during the month of January. There was, however, much posturing as both parties awaited the Governor’s state of the state message. The Republicans are preparing their legislative agenda while the Democrats are expecting the Governor to lay out her agenda for them to implement. The posturing has been especially heated inasmuch as this is an election year and both parties are vying for the electorate’s votes. The legislature has considered several bills regarding the economic stimulus and business taxes. This is the initial round in a multi round fight which probably will be as contentious as last year’s battle over economic/tax issues.
The following legislative activity during January may be of interest to seniors/retirees:
HB 5268 has been signed into law and is now PA 335. This bill defines torture and makes it a felony. The bill states that a person who inflicts great bodily injury or severe mental pain or suffering upon another person within his or her custody or physical control, with the intent to cause cruel or extreme physical or mental pain and suffering would be guilty of torture. It is not necessary to prove that the victims suffered pain to be convicted of the crime of torture. A person charged with torture could also be charged with other crimes relating to the same activity. One found guilty of torture could be sentenced to life in prison or a term of any number of years.
HB 4577 is now law as PA 337. This bill provides whistleblower protection to any person who reports Medicaid fraud. The law allows a person to bring a civil action in the name of the state to recover the state’s losses from a violation of the Medicaid False Claim Act. Such a lawsuit cannot be dismissed unless the Attorney General has been given the opportunity to appear and oppose dismissal. If the Attorney General did not exercise his right to appear and oppose dismissal within 28 days, his right to do so would be waived. The act also allows the Attorney General to intervene in an action filed by someone else, and require that the complaint be sealed and service on the defendant be withheld until the time for the Attorney General to intervene has expired. Even though the Attorney General intervenes, the person filing the original lawsuit could receive monetary damages. It is estimated that between 3% and 10% of Medicaid transactions are fraudulent.
SB 956 is on its way to the Governor for signature. This bill transfers $116.3 million of the amount of the 2004-5 General Fund lapse to the Counter Cyclical Budget and Economic Stabilization Fund. In essence, this “protects” this lapse from last fiscal year from being used for current year operational needs without legislative approval. After this transfer of $116.3 million, the balance in the “rainy day” fund stands at $118.3 million. The Governor is expected to sign the bill.
SJR 38 establishes a Joint Select Committee to oversee distributions from the 21st Century Jobs Fund. This is a very controversial move because the legislation creating the Jobs Fund already requires oversight by three entities: (1) Strategic Economic Investment and Commercialization Board, (2) Strategic Fund Board and (3) Tobacco Settlement Finance Authority. Democrats believe that with these three groups overseeing the allocation of funds, it is unnecessary for a joint legislative committee to provide oversight. Obviously, the legislature thought otherwise, because the Joint Resolution has passed and the committee members appointed.
Closing of 2005 fiscal books — The state’s 2004-5 fiscal year books were closed in early January which is within 90 days after the close of the fiscal year. This is quite an achievement which is becoming commonplace within Michigan state government. The state had a surplus of $318 million which is attributable primarily to an increase in estate taxes collected in the latter part of the year. $220 million of the surplus is General Fund money while $98 million is a surplus in the School Aid Fund. Some of the surplus will be used to cover business tax cuts and the economic stimulus package.
Elder Abuse Task Force reported that between 5% and 10% of Michigan’s elderly are abused. This amounts to some 80,000 individuals who are physically, financially, or mentally abused. The Task Force was appointed a year ago to study the extent and nature of elder abuse and offer recommendations on how to lessen it. The Task Force has already indicated that the citizenry needs to be better informed about elder abuse. Its final report is due in May of this year.
No Special Legislative Elections will be held to fill two House seats vacated by the death of one member (56th district, Monroe) and the resignation of another (29th district, Pontiac). The House vacancies will be filled by having the primary election in August and the general election in November to coincide with the normal election cycle. Until then, the House Business Director will handle constituent services for residents of the two districts. The date of the elections was set to occur with the normal election cycle to avoid the cost of special elections. The Senate vacancy, created by the resignation of Virg Bernero who is now the Mayor of Lansing, will be filled by special election. The primary being held February 21 and the runoff will be held March 14. The Governor set the special election dates for the Bernero vacancy after being told that the cost would not be a problem.
Land Sale Approved — The sale of state land in the Ypsilanti area to the Toyota Corporation has finally been approved. The highest bidder contested the sale of the property to Toyota because their bid was some $16 million more than the $11 million Toyota bid and allegedly the state used arbitrary standards in making its decision. The Toyota bid was accepted because of the economic impact resulting from Toyota’s planned use of the land. After the Appeals Court ruled in the state’s favor in a lawsuit over the sale, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Appeals Court for further review. The Governor then asked the Supreme Court to take the case back and issue an expedited decision. The Supreme Court did take jurisdiction and without explanation, the Court seemingly reversed itself and ruled in the state’ favor, clearing the way for the sale to be finalized.
Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the controversial anti-affirmative action measure has finally been approved and will be on the ballot. After the court ordered the Board of Canvassers to certify the petitions which had been contested by a group who claimed some of the signatures were fraudulently obtained, the petitions were certified and the issue will be on the ballot. The court also instructed the State Elections Director to prepare ballot language. The language has been finalized and is as follows:
A proposal to amend the state constitution to ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes
The proposed constitutional amendment would:
Should this proposal be adopted?
This ballot issue remains controversial even though the language has been clarified. The Auditor General in an audit letter indicated that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission violated the state’s Campaign Finance Act by publishing on its website, the minutes of the Commission meeting which stated the Commission’s opposition to the ballot proposal. The Director of the Department of Civil Rights claims the publication of minutes does not constitute a violation of the act and the Auditor General is not the most knowledgeable about the Campaign Finance Act.
On another front, the Civil Rights Commission is holding public hearings regarding the allegations of some petition signatures being obtained fraudulently. Apparently there is no other agency charged with the responsibility for handling complaints of this nature. The Commission believed the charges to be serious enough that they should be formally aired. The supporters of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative refused to attend and participate in the hearings.
Way Cleared for Indian Casino — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians could move ahead to build a casino in New Buffalo, near the Indiana border. The Court ruled that those opposing the casino failed to show the need for an environmental impact statement and that a lower court appropriately designated the Tribe as a restored tribe making it eligible to have land put in trust and operate a casino under the Federal Indian Gaming laws. The Federal government recently put the land in trust, thus removing all remaining barriers.
People in the News
Ted Wallace, a former Democrat state representative from Detroit who became a district court judge after leaving the legislature, died at the age of 64.
David Hollister, a former longtime House member, former Mayor of Lansing and currently Director of the Department of Labor and Economic Growth has announced that he will leave his position to accept a position as head of a private economic development organization, Prima Civitas (First City), a partnership formed by Michigan State University, Lansing Community College and the City of Lansing.
Jay Rising, State Treasurer, is leaving state government to accept the position of Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for the Detroit Medical Center.
Representative Gretchen Whitmer has announced her candidacy for the 23rd district Senate seat vacated by Virg Bernero. There are two Democrat candidates running against her in the primary and two Republican candidates seeking the nomination. Whitmer appears to be the odds-on favorite to win the seat.
Mark Murray, Former State Budget Director, former State Treasurer and currently President of Grand Valley State University has announced he will leave that position to accept the presidency of the retail chain Meijers Incorporated.
Geoffrey Fieger, the wealthy Detroit attorney and former Democrat gubernatorial candidate, has been cleared of criminal charges relating to an alleged Campaign Finance Act violation. Fieger was accused of financing a $450,000 advertisement campaign to defeat Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman. The issue was referred to Attorney General Cox by Secretary of State Terry Land. After Fieger was accused of attempting to blackmail Mr. Cox regarding an extramarital affair, Mr. Cox hired a special assistant attorney General, Patrick Shannon, to handle the campaign violation charge for his office. Mr. Shannon found that Fieger may have violated the Campaign Finance Act, but it was not a criminal infraction. He returned the case back to the Secretary of State for possible civil action which could lead to significant civil fines.
Ken Sikkema, Majority leader of the Senate, has expressed an interest in becoming president of Grand Valley State University, replacing Mark Murray. Mr. Sikkema is term limited.
Michael Cavanaugh, a state Supreme Court Justice, has announced he will seek election to one final term on the Court. He has been on the Court for 23 years and can serve only one more eight year term because of age. He will be a Democrat nominee for the Court.
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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