Unfortunately, the status of the State’s fiscal crisis remains unchanged from last month’s report. The posturing, political infighting, dilatory tactics, and sometimes insults continue among the legislative leadership and the Governor’s office. Despite the editorial criticism that has been expressed, there appears to be no movement toward a solution to the 2008 fiscal year (which begins October 1) budget deficit estimated to be $1.8 billion. In fact, the House Minority Leader suggested that there may not even be a deficit which is indicative of how difficult it is to move toward a solution.
The Democratically controlled House is working on 2008 departmental budgets and sending them to the Senate for consideration, but the Republican controlled Senate refuses to consider 2008 budget bills, half of which originate in that chamber, until a solution to the budget crisis has been achieved. So concerned were the colleges and universities about the potential for not receiving the usual state funding, that they have increased tuition costs to make up any potential losses.
The Governor has indicated that she does not want a shutdown of state government as happened in Pennsylvania recently, she is not willing to say with certainty that a shutdown will not happen. It is believed in some quarters that the Republicans want a shutdown to embarrass the Governor. The threat of a cash flow problem looms in the shadows which would mean the state would have to take extraordinary measures to prevent at least a partial shutdown.
The legislature took a two week vacation in July and do not plan a full work schedule during the month of August. This is in the face of the new fiscal year beginning in less than 60 days. In the meantime, Leon Drolet’s Michigan Taxpayers’ Alliance continues to urge citizens to participate in training to recall legislators who vote for a tax increase. Such a training program was recently held in Traverse City.
The lack of leadership and willingness to resolve an obvious problem causes this period of time to be a sad chapter in Michigan’s history!
The overriding issue in the legislature is resolution of the budget problem. This has impacted movement on other non-budgetary legislative matters. However, some bills of interest to seniors/retirees saw action during the last month:
HBs 4553 and 4048 are bills pertaining to absentee voting. HB 4553 would permit, but not require, a municipal clerk to mail out absentee ballots to senior citizens (sixty years of age or older) without such ballots being requested by those receiving them. The bill has passed the House and gone to the Senate Committee on Campaign and Election Oversight. HB 4048 would permit a citizen to request an absentee ballot without having to state a reason for the request. Under current law, a citizen has to state one of six statutory reasons for requesting an absentee ballot. This bill would eliminate the statutory reasons for requesting a ballot. The bill has been reported out of Committee and is now on the House Floor. Both bills have failed to become law in previous legislatures.
HB 4903 is a bill which would prohibit the investment of retirement funds administered by the State Retirement System from being invested in firms doing business in countries whose governments support terrorism and human rights abuses. The bill outlines a schedule for divesting retirement system assets which may already be invested in such companies located in a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The bill would require total divestiture no later than five years. The state treasurer would be required to maintain a register of U.S. companies that have (1) an investment in a state sponsor of terrorism (2) a franchise or with an individual or company located in a state sponsor of terrorism (3) a licensing agreement with, or management agreement with an individual or company located in a state sponsor of terrorism. Such register would have to be provided to each retirement system at least once a year and the companies whose names are on the register be notified of the reasons why their name on the register and the value of the current assets invested in the company. The state treasurer would be responsible for determining when a company’s name should be removed from the register after consultation with the U.S. Department of State. The bill has passed the House and gone to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
HBs 4717-19 and SBs 298- 303 are all bills dealing with the redaction of one’s Social Security number on documents legally handled by the registers of deeds throughout the state (deeds, mortgages, liens, etc). Basically, the bills would prohibit registers of deeds from accepting documents to be processed if the complete Social Security number was displayed (other than the last four digits). Likewise, the registers of deeds would be prohibited from copying and/or distributing documents with more than the last four digits of a Social Security number being displayed. Additionally, individuals could request the registers of deeds to remove or obscure their Social Security numbers from documents. The large number of bills involved is attributable to the various public acts which must be amended to accomplish the goal of the bills. The bills are being actively considered with the Senate bills having passed that chamber and currently being considered on the House floor.
HBs 4289 and 4920 are bills which create a new criminal category for convictions of repeated drunk driving by an individual. Under the bills, a “high blood alcohol content” or “super drunk” level would be recognized for individuals with an intoxication level of 1.5 grams. The sanctions for being convicted for driving “super drunk” would be higher than current drunk driving sanctions. Included in the sanctions would be the requirement for an ignition interlock device on one’s automobile to prevent the automobile from starting, imposition of a suspended license and/or a restricted license. The degree of sanctions would be based on prior drunk driving convictions over the last seven years. The bills prescribe the administrative methods for how one gets back his/her license or gets the ignition interlock device removed. The bills have been reported out of committee and are now on the House Floor.
HB 4852 is a very controversial bill which would mandate a telephone bill surcharge to be used for funding various criminal justice programs. There is no agreement among law enforcement agencies on the value of the bill. Some law enforcement agencies see the bill as a way to get their programs funded while others see this as a first step in moving the obligation for funding law enforcement/criminal justice activities from the General Fund to this special “tax.” A $1.35 fee would be imposed on all communication devices capable of assessing, connecting with, or interfacing with a 911 system by means of a local telephone or cellular telephone service. The fee would be collected and remitted to the state by the service provider. The bill would create a Public Safety Fund and credit fee revenue to the fund. This mandated fee would be in addition to the monthly 29- cent charge to cellular phones users for the Commercial Mobile Radio Service which funds 911 services and the monthly surcharge imposed on landline phones by most counties and the technical charges imposed by the service providers. The CMRS fee is primarily distributed to the state police, counties, and public service answering points. It is going to be interesting to see which group of law enforcement will be successful in lobbying for the passage or defeat of the bill. The bill is currently under consideration in the House Appropriations Committee.
SB 662 would delay the effective date of the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit for low income earners until the Countercyclical Budget and Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund) reports an ending balance of at least $250,000 for the immediately preceding fiscal year. Currently, the Fund balance is zero under the present fiscal crisis. The highest amount the “Rainy Day Fund” has accumulated is over a billion dollars. The rationale behind this bill is that the state cannot afford the Earned Income Tax Credit at this time. The bill recently has been introduced and referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
Voter ID law ruled legal — In an advisory opinion requested by the legislature, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled by a 5-2 vote that a law passed in 2005 requiring voters to show photo identification before being allowed to vote was constitutional and could be implemented. Former Attorney General Frank Kelley had ruled ten years ago that similar legislation containing such a provision was unconstitutional because in violated the 14th Amendment. A voter without a photo ID may still be allowed to vote by completing an affidavit certifying his/her identity and address. The Secretary of State will begin implementing the photo ID requirement in the November, 2007 election. This will make Michigan the 20th state to require photo identification.
Other states’ retirement plans — Michigan is one of two states having only a defined contribution plan for its newly hired employees. The other state is Alaska. The remaining states have either defined benefit plans or offer a choice between defined benefit or defined contribution plans. Minnesota’s state retirees’ plan cost is entirely borne by employees. This data was brought out at a meeting of the Retiree Health Care Reform Committee which is studying Michigan’s public employee retirement plans.
Highland Park retirees pensions stopped — Some 52 retirees from the City of Highland Park will no longer receive their pensions as the result of the action taken by the Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS). MERS, in effect, terminated their relationship with the City of Highland Park because of the City’s failure to make timely payments to the System on behalf of retired employees. MERS officials indicated that Highland Park was some $3 million in arrears. The City joined MERS in 1994 and has been repeatedly delinquent in making their payments to the system.
Lansing State Journal database — The issue of an online data base created by the Lansing State Journal is still smoldering. The database includes the names and salaries of all classified state employees. The courts and the legislature and the Governor’s office have refused to provide the information to the Journal.
Clifford Taylor, Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, wrote an open letter to the publisher and executive editor taking the paper to task for publishing the names of state employees and the manner they went about creating the data base and the rationale used for doing so. Justice Taylor concluded his letter by asking the Journal to publish the number of subscribers they have lost as a result, the number of complaints received and whether it profited by increased advertising revenue from its website.
People in the News
Mitch Irwin, Director of the Department of Agriculture and former director of the Department of Management and Budget announced his retirement effective August 15 to return to the private sector.
Phyllis Mellow, Chief Deputy Director of Agriculture under Irwin, will become the Interim Director until a successor to Irwin is found.
Tom Meyer, a former Republican State Representative from Bad Axe, who served from 2000 through 2006 recently died at the age of 65. Mr. Meyer was know for yelling “Play ball” after the pledge was recited to begin House sessions.
Andrew Raczkowski, a former state representative affectionately known as “Rocky”, is being encouraged by the Republican bigwigs to run for the Senate seat held by Carl Levin. He has not indicated that he is opposed to running and appears to be leaning toward running. He was soundly trounced by Mr. Levin in the 2000 Senate race.
Alexander Lipsey, a former state Democratic state representative, who after being term-limited was appointed legal counsel for the House, has been appointed a circuit court judge in Kalamazoo’s ninth circuit by Governor Granholm.
Steven Transeth, who served as Assistant Director and Legal Counsel of the Legislative Service Bureau, has been appointed to the Public Service Commission by Governor Granholm. Mr. Transeth was involved in writing changes to the Telecommunications Act and energy laws in his Service Bureau position.
Representative Paul Condino, a Southfield Democrat who will be term-limited at the end of his present term, has announced he will run for Oakland County Prosecutor. The current Republican prosecutor, David Gorcyca has announced he will not seek reelection.
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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